On Security

The U.S. Election Season: Security Challenges and Conventional Wisdom

9 MINS READMar 26, 2008 | 15:10 GMT
Security Weekly
By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart As the struggle grinds on in the United States for the Democratic presidential nomination, it appears there will be no clear winner before the Democratic National Convention begins Aug. 25 in Denver, Colo. This contest of firsts — the first female presidential candidate in Hillary Clinton and the first African-American candidate to win so many primaries and delegates in Barack Obama — has been hard-fought, and likely will become even more heated between now and the convention. The Obama campaign has leveled claims of racism over remarks made by former President Bill Clinton before the January South Carolina primary, and more recently over the widely publicized comments by Geraldine Ferraro, who was forced to resign from the Clinton campaign. The Obama campaign also has had to face racism charges over controversial comments made from the pulpit by Obama's longtime friend and pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who until February was pastor of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. From a security perspective, each election cycle brings huge challenges. The task of protecting presidential candidates has become ever larger and longer as campaigns and primary elections have been pushed ever earlier. In fact, when Obama received U.S. Secret Service (USSS) protection in May 2007, he made history by being the candidate to receive USSS protection the earliest. Much of the rationale behind the decision to provide Obama with protection so early was based on the conventional wisdom that radical white racists would seek to harm him. A review of several radical white racist Web sites, however, shows that many radical white racists would prefer that Obama be elected, rather than Clinton or Republican candidate John McCain, both of whom they consider to be controlled by Jewish interest groups. Perhaps the greatest threat to all three of the candidates — as is nearly always the case — would be a mentally disturbed lone gunman, and such a person could choose to target any of the candidates for any number of reasons.


Major presidential candidates have been afforded USSS protection since the 1968 assassination of Robert Kennedy at the site of a campaign event. Presidential elections give the USSS and other security personnel headaches for a number of reasons. Foremost among these is the fact that campaigns are, by their very nature, fast, furious and geographically diverse. In the run-up to an important primary — or on a day like Super Tuesday, when there are multiple primaries — candidates can hopscotch across a state or even across the country. Candidates' schedules often are packed with events that start before sunrise and last until long after dark, and each of the events on that very full schedule requires a great deal of security planning and preparation. Each site on the candidate's itinerary must first be visited by a security advance team or agent, who will survey the site, gather all the details of the event and then create a plan, called a security survey, for the measures to be put in place for the event. In the case of a 10-minute stop at a diner, for example, the plan can simply outline which entrance should be used and how the agents should be deployed, as well as provide emergency evacuation procedures. Such small events often can be handled by the security detail itself, as are most of the impromptu stops and events. In general, the threat is smaller at an impromptu stop than it is at a planned event, because the spontaneous nature of the impromptu stop does not give potential malefactors the opportunity to make attack plans. Large, well-publicized events, on the other hand, can provide ample opportunity to plan, and because of this they require additional security measures. In the case of a large planned function, security measures can be expanded to include bomb sweeps, access control and screening, countersniper coverage, sweeps for hazardous materials, etc. Any event that is swept for bombs by an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) team must then be watched, or "posted," for the entire period between the sweep and the event. Advance work, pre-posting, close protection, protective intelligence, liaison with local and state police agencies and access control all require bodies. Consider the manpower required to secure one such event, multiply that by several similar events daily and by the number of candidates being protected — and then spread it over a period of many months — and it becomes apparent why the USSS, with its 3,200 special agents and 1,200 uniformed officers, is hard-pressed during an election season. Add to all of that the fact that the USSS is required to maintain its normal protective coverage of the sitting president and vice president, first lady, former presidents and first ladies, and visiting heads of state. In fact, the USSS frequently lacks the manpower for all of these functions and often will borrow special agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Internal Revenue Service, or deputies from the U.S. Marshals Service. Another challenge during election season is the fact that candidates are compelled to meet and greet supporters, kiss babies and press the flesh. This means they need to enter crowds. This is the aspect of the job that protection agents most abhor, because danger can lurk in a crowd. The compact nature of a crowd makes it very difficult for agents to see bulges and bumps that can indicate that a person is armed. Moreover, the sheer number of people makes it difficult for agents to spot individuals who are behaving abnormally. That said, U.S. protective agencies such as the USSS and the Diplomatic Security Service spend much time and effort training their special agents to "work the crowd." They are the best in the world at it, but that does not mean it is an easy task or one the agents enjoy. As we have discussed in relation to the two assassination attempts against Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, crowds are a security nightmare. This is true anywhere in the world. Indeed, a number of assassins and would-be assassins in the United States have struck from crowds. President William McKinley was greeting a crowd at an exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1901, when he was shot by anarchist Leon Frank Czolgosz, who had concealed a revolver in a handkerchief. Presidential candidate George Wallace was shot in 1972 by Arthur Bremer, who emerged from a crowd during a campaign stop in Laurel, Md. Wallace survived the attempt, but the attack left him disabled for life. Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme and Sarah Jane Moore both attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford from crowds in September 1975. John Hinckley also used a crowd of reporters (an area known as the press pen) as camouflage in his 1981 assassination attempt against President Ronald Reagan. In the past, one radical group threatened to stab politicians working the crowds with HIV-infected needles, and other groups have plotted to attack prominent politicians with toxins such as ricin.

Conventional Wisdom

At present, the conventional wisdom holds that Obama, as an African-American, is under a greater threat than either Clinton or McCain. However, a close look at the rhetoric on many radical white racist Web sites reveals a couple of things that appear to contradict the conventional wisdom. In fact, the rhetoric seems to indicate that all three remaining candidates are at risk. First, many people who post comments on these types of sites believe the real problem is not African-Americans, but Jews, whom they believe are using African-Americans as a tool to oppress white Americans. In other words, they see African-Americans as a symptom of a larger Jewish problem. They believe that a cabal of Jews — an entity they call the Zionist Occupation Government (ZOG) — secretly controls the U.S. government. They further believe that both McCain and Clinton are totally controlled by the ZOG, and that the ZOG will oppose Obama because he is not toeing the line. Using the logic that an Obama victory would be bad for the ZOG, these racists would rather see Obama get elected than either the "ZOG-controlled" Clinton or McCain. Many of these same radical white racists also believe that Obama is a godsend to them. First, they believe that if he is defeated in either the primaries or the general election, it will spark huge riots in inner cities across the United States — riots that, they say, will demonstrate the "true nature" of African-Americans. Even if Obama is elected, many white racists believe he will behave in a manner that will inflame racial tensions, causing a polarization that will assist them in their recruiting efforts and ultimately in their fight to wrest control of the United States from the ZOG. Of course, some white racists also say they hope a lone wolf will assassinate Obama in an effort to spark a race war. This is the reason he is under USSS protection. But Obama is not the only candidate at risk from right-wing extremists. In addition to the white racists who believe McCain and Clinton are Jewish puppets, there are other right-wing radicals who are unhappy with both McCain and Clinton over their respective stances on immigration. Right-wing radicals also were not fond of the Bill Clinton presidency. When they discuss the prospects of a Hillary Clinton presidency, they frequently refer to people such as former Attorney General Janet Reno and incidents such as the Waco siege and the air campaign against Serbia. All of the presidential candidates also face the threat of a mentally disturbed lone wolf, like Hinckley or Bremer. Such individuals have long posed one of the most severe threats to prominent individuals in the United States. McCain also has the additional threats of radical leftists who oppose his stance on the war in Iraq, though frankly they are more likely to embarrass him than seriously harm him. More concerning is the real threat posed by radical Islamists, of both the jihadist and Hezbollah variety, who see McCain's stance on the war in Iraq, his unequivocal support of Israel and his tough rhetoric toward Iran as threatening. Any election season poses difficult security challenges for the USSS, but the unique circumstances of this year's election are making the job especially tough on the already overtaxed protection service.

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