The Washington Post
When President Barack Obama makes his first extended trip to sub-Saharan Africa this month, the federal agencies charged with keeping him safe won’t be taking any chances.
Hundreds of U.S. Secret Service agents will be dispatched to secure facilities in Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania. A Navy aircraft carrier or amphibious ship, with a fully staffed medical trauma center, will be stationed offshore in case of an emergency.
Military cargo planes will airlift in 56 support vehicles, including 14 limousines and three trucks loaded with sheets of bulletproof glass to cover the windows of the hotels where the first family will stay. Fighter jets will fly in shifts, giving 24-hour coverage over the president’s airspace, so they can intervene quickly if an errant plane gets too close.
The extraordinary security provisions – which will cost the government tens of millions of dollars – are outlined in a confidential internal planning document obtained by The Washington Post. While the preparations appear to be in line with similar travels in the past, the document offers an unusual glimpse into the colossal efforts to protect the U.S. commander-in-chief on trips abroad.
Any journey by the president, such as one scheduled next week for Northern Ireland and Germany, is an immense and costly logistical challenge. But the trip to Africa is complicated by a confluence of factors that could make it one of the most expensive of Obama’s tenure, according to people familiar with the planning.
The first family is making back-to-back stops from June 26 to July 3 in three countries where U.S. officials are providing nearly all the resources, rather than depending more heavily on local police forces, military authorities or hospitals for assistance.
The president and first lady had also planned to take a Tanzanian safari as part of the trip, which would have required the president’s special counterassault team to carry sniper rifles with high-caliber rounds that could neutralize cheetahs, lions or other animals if they became a threat, according to the planning document. But the White House canceled the safari Wednesday after inquiries from The Post about the trip’s purpose and expense, according to a person familiar with the decision.
Former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush also made trips to multiple African nations involving similarly laborious preparations. Bush went in 2003 and 2008, bringing his wife on both occasions. Bush’s two daughters went along on the earlier trip, which included a safari at a game preserve on the Botswana-South Africa border.
“Even in the most developed places of Western Europe, the level of support you need for mass movements by the president is really extraordinary,” said Steve Atkiss, who coordinated travel as special assistant for operations to Bush. “As you go farther afield, to less-developed places, certainly it’s more of a logistical challenge.”
White House and Secret Service officials declined to discuss the details of the security operations, and administration aides cautioned that the president’s itinerary is not finalized.
Obama’s overseas travels come as government agencies, including the Secret Service, are wrestling with mandatory, across-the-board spending cuts. The service has had to slice $84 million from its budget this year, and this spring the agency canceled public White House tours to save $74,000 a week in overtime costs.
Many details about foreign presidential trips are classified for national security reasons, and there is little public information about overall costs. A report from the Government Accountability Office found that Clinton’s 1998 trip to six African nations cost the U.S. government at least $42.7 million. Most of that was incurred by the military, which made 98 airlift missions to transport personnel and vehicles, and set up temporary medical evacuation units in five countries.
That figure did not include costs borne by the Secret Service, which were considered classified.
Obama’s trip could cost the federal government $60 million to $100 million based on the costs of similar African trips in recent years, according to one person familiar with the journey, who was not authorized to speak for attribution. The Secret Service planning document, which was provided to The Post by a person who is concerned about the amount of resources necessary for the trip, does not specify costs.
“The infrastructure that accompanies the president’s travels is beyond our control,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. “The security requirements are not White House-driven, they are Secret Service-driven… . Part of this is the nature of making sure we travel to emerging areas in Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa. They are not as designed to facilitate the footprint of the United States president.”
But current and former government security officials involved in presidential trips said White House staff also help determine what’s required, because they plan the visits and parameters. The Secret Service and military respond to that itinerary by providing what their agencies consider the required security.
White House officials said the trip was long overdue, marking Obama’s first visit as president to sub-Saharan Africa aside from a 22-hour stopover in Ghana in 2009. The emerging democracies on the itinerary are crucial partners in regional security conflicts, Rhodes said.
Obama will hold bilateral meetings with each country’s leader and seek to forge stronger economic ties at a time when China is investing heavily in Africa. He also will highlight global health programs, including HIV/AIDS prevention.
The first lady, who toured South Africa and Botswana without the president in 2011, will headline some events on her own during the week. The stops will add to the logistical challenges, because she will require her own security detail and vehicles, the planning document shows.
Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan declined to discuss details of the journey. “We always provide the appropriate level of protection to create a secure environment,” he said.
According to the Secret Service document, Obama will spend a night in Dakar, Senegal, two nights in Johannesburg, a night in Cape Town, South Africa, and then one night in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Among the 56 vehicles for the trip are parade limousines for the president and first lady; a specialized communications vehicle for secure telephone and video connections; a truck that jams radio frequencies around the presidential motorcade; a fully loaded ambulance that can handle biological or chemical contaminants; and a truck for X-ray equipment.
The Secret Service transports such vehicles, along with bulletproof glass, on most trips, including those inside the United States, White House officials said. But with quick stops in three countries, the agency will need three sets of each, because there is not enough time to transfer the equipment, according to the planning document.
One hundred agents are needed as “post-standers” – to man security checkpoints and borders around the president – in each of the first three cities he visits. Sixty-five are needed to meet up with Obama in Dar es Salaam. Before the 2-1/2 hour safari in Mikumi National Park was canceled this week, another 35 post-standers had been slated to protect the Obamas and their two daughters there, according to the document.
In addition, 80 to 100 additional agents will be flown in to work rotating shifts, with round-the-clock coverage, for Obama’s and his family’s security details, counterassault teams and logistics coordinators.
The planning document does not provide a total number of how many individual agents will be involved in the trip; some will work in more than one location.
Officials said the Secret Service does not want the president traveling anywhere without a top-rated trauma center nearby. The White House medical unit makes decisions about which foreign hospitals meet its standards when it makes advance visits to the locations for planned trips, officials said.
For example, the unit concluded that local hospitals were adequate in Oslo when Obama visited the city in 2009 to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.
But in much of the developing world, the U.S. Navy provides a “floating hospital” on an aircraft carrier or amphibious ship nearby, officials said. The U.S. military also flies fighter jets around the clock to secure airspace in some regions where the president is visiting, including Africa, the person familiar with the planning operations said.
Atkiss, the former Bush administration official, said none of the requirements listed in the Secret Service planning document is outside standard operating procedure.
“This is what you need to support the American presidency,” Atkiss said, “regardless of who the president is.”