Although they receive Secret Service protection, experts say you can’t compare the amount resources devoted to keeping presidential candidates safe to that of protecting a sitting president or vice president.
Photo credit: (Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Gage Skidmore)
With the 2012 race for the Republican presidential nomination in full swing, those responsible for protecting the remaining candidates are in the midst of making security preparations for the whirlwind, state-to-state tour on which they are about to embark.
For much of its history, the U.S. Secret Service did not play a role in protecting presidential candidates, but this changed in 1968 when Congress authorized their protection following the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.
Former Secret Service Agent W. Dennis Maez, who worked on Jesse Jackson's campaign security detail in 1984 and later served as a supervisor on George W. Bush's campaign security team, said that one of the biggest challenges of protecting a candidate is maintaining a "bubble" of security around them given the amount of exposure that's inherent with the position.
"The Secret Service protects candidates on certain set principles of concentric rings of security. An outer perimeter, a middle perimeter and then an inner perimeter," explained Maez, who now serves as president and owner of Maez Security Consultants. "Depending on the candidate, there can be really unique challenges with respect to the amount of resources and the type of resources that you employ to keep a safe environment. When you have a very unique candidate... it can really present some challenges."
Joseph Sordi, managing director of New York-based Strategic Security Corp., which played a role in securing both the 2004 and 2008 Democratic and Republican National Conventions, said that from a private security perspective, working with all of the various agencies involved and event coordinators for the respective political parties makes it important to be flexible.
"Just when you think you have everything settled in terms of itinerary for the next day, you wake up in the morning, you're ready to go to work and there are about five off the record changes that occur," he said. "And then you have to scramble to get people out there to do quick site advances and figure out how you're going to prepare. The bottom line is you can't lock the person down and confine them to a specific area or a specific venue because they are running for a political office."
Maez, who also protected presidents George H. Bush and Bill Clinton while they were in office, added that you can't use a "one size fits all" approach for every candidate.
"There are basics that you do for everyone and then, in certain instances, the amount of resources that you put forth are intelligence driven," he explained. "When I say intelligence driven, I mean the degree of threats that are received or the rhetoric in the public domain."
With the advent of social media and blogging, Maez said that it is easier, in many ways, to be able to determine the "pulse" or general feelings that many people have about a candidate, which can help Secret Service agents and others responsible for their security to identify threats. For example, if a candidate has a very outspoken stance on a hot-button issue such as abortion, then they could potentially face threats from extremists who hold an opposite view on the subject.
Sordi added that another component of intelligence is gathering personal information about the candidates themselves, such as the types of medications they may take and other things of that nature.
"There is a lot of personal information that needs to be shared and that's when they need to trust that you're going to do the right thing with that personal information because we've seen countless times personal information get out in the public space and just ruin a candidate's opportunity," Sordi said.
Aside from outdoor environments and the inherent exposure level they create, Maez said that one venue is not necessarily more challenging to secure than another for candidates.
"You can have an indoor event in an area where a candidate is very, very controversial and you have to have the same kind of resources that you would for an outdoor event where that same candidate might be in a much friendlier environment," he said.
However, Sordi said that security personnel do need to be prepared to deal with things such as unscheduled or "popup" demonstrations.
"With all of the social networking that goes on now, basically with the click of a button on your phone you could send a mass alert or a mass text message to a humongous entity and then all of sudden within minutes you have a flash mob show up at a location," he said. "The mob may be protesting something like the Occupy Wall Street movement or it might be a more volatile mob. Who knows?"
The aforementioned off the record moves by candidates or their staffs also pose a big challenge, according to Sordi.
"All of sudden, something comes in at the last minute and the (candidate) wants to jump out and when you're in a motorcade and you're moving, it's a lot harder to hit a moving target," he said. "Let's face it, a big part of what they do is meet and greet and handshakes and that becomes one of the most stressful times where a protection agent is constantly on edge. No matter how much you prepare, you're always exposed."
The amount of federal resources dedicated to protecting candidates has come up for public debate recently as costs have reportedly risen substantially over the years. According to a story published by the Washington Post, the Secret Service recently requested more than $113 million to protect this year's Republican nominee, which is reportedly a $4 million increase from 2008 and nearly two-thirds more than was spent on security for the 2004 election.
In fact, one Texas lawmaker is calling for Gov. Rick Perry to reimburse state taxpayers for the nearly $800,000 they shelled out for his security expenses while he was still on the campaign trail.
Despite the high security price tag, Maez said that the resources agents are able to devote to candidate protection pales in comparison to the president's security.
"You can't compare candidate protection to presidential or vice presidential protection. They are two inherently different animals," he said. "The same basic concepts apply, but the level of resources that are utilized by the Secret Service and local law enforcement... it's totally different. When you're protecting the president or vice president you're protecting the leaders of the free world basically and the resources are limitless. When you have maybe six or seven declared candidates for the nomination for a particular party, the resources aren't limitless.
"You predicate your security on intelligence. If intelligence information is provided that is credible that there is a plot, let's say an organized plot or even (a plot by) an individual, but it's good, solid information, then 99 percent of the time in cooperation with the candidate and his staff you can avoid the situation. But, you have to be sure you only use that card when you absolutely, positively have to. As the agency that is protecting these candidates, you can't be crying wolf with respect to what's inherently a dangerous situation. The candidates being out there in the public eye, there are some risks to it."
And even though federal law doesn't formally extend Secret Service protection to all members of a candidate's immediate family as it does in the case of the president, Maez said that their safety must still be taken into consideration.
"When I was there we took into account the immediate family members even though we may not have specifically assigned details to them," Maez added. "We would definitely include them in our security overview with respect to a candidate and if there were certain instances where let's say a spouse was very controversial and he or she is the target of threats, then obviously because that spouse is going to be with the candidate we want to make sure the protective umbrella covers both of them."
While advancements in technology have helped with keeping candidates safe, Maez said that it's still up to people using this equipment to know when something doesn't look or feel quite right.
"Technology is great, but it's only as good as the people using it," Maez said.
Maez characterized the relationship between candidates and the Secret Service as a partnership and said that they don't want to be an impediment to their campaign. However, when a candidate decides to take a course of action that could endanger their safety, Maez said that agents won't shy away from informing them about the potential dangers. He recalled a story in which a candidate wanted to go to a certain event, but the Secret Service hadn't done any advance work in the area and the security detail leader, following a heated discussion, eventually dissuaded them from going.
"It has to be a collaborative effort between the candidate and the secret service," he said. "We know what they want. They want exposure. We want to give them that exposure. We don't want to be an impediment to their campaign, but we want them to be safe."