By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 18, 2009
As jubilant Democrats nominated Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) for president in a Denver convention hall in late August, the U.S. Secret Service in Washington placed its largest ever order for bulletproof glass.
The service requested about 5 tons of "transparent armor," laminated with four layers of virtually unbreakable plastic to resist chemicals, flames and multiple gunshots. When Obama is sworn in as the nation's 44th president Tuesday, the ballistic shield will provide a final layer of safety in a massive exercise in presidential security, the culmination of two years of a steady ratcheting up of the protection around Obama to a level unseen for any of his predecessors.
"I don't think there could have been any higher-order target for [Osama] bin Laden than [President Bush], because this president launched the attack on Afghanistan," Bush Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, whose department oversees the Secret Service, told The Washington Post last month. "I think what will be different perhaps for the new president is [he] may excite the attention of some domestic groups that maybe were not that engaged previously. And so that's an issue we're going to have to be looking at."
Privately, current and former Secret Service and U.S. intelligence officials interviewed for this article confirmed that Obama's ascent has led to spikes in threatening "chatter" on white supremacist Web sites and a smattering of incidents around the country that led to intensive investigation.
"Ultimately, there are a higher number of threats," one former senior Secret Service official said. "My friends and family members certainly in the last couple months said, 'Oh, my goodness, the Secret Service must be having such a difficult time.' Well, they are in the sense that every one of these that comes up must be investigated. That takes time and effort and money. They just need to be permitted to do the job."
But the phenomenon that the Obama campaign became provided a test for law enforcement.
On May 18, an Obama event expected to draw 20,000 people in Portland, Ore., attracted 75,000. In July, about 200,000 showed up to see Obama in Germany, part of a 10-nation trip to Europe and the Middle East in which he was escorted by the Secret Service.
On Aug. 28, Obama accepted his party's nomination at Invesco Field at Mile High, a 76,000-seat outdoor stadium, instead of the 20,000-seat indoor arena where Democrats held their convention. The Secret Service was given about two months to prepare for the shift.
As the crowds swelled, the Secret Service implored Congress for more funding. Overall, the Secret Service spent more than $110 million on the 2008 election, about 50 percent more than the previous record $74 million it spent for the 2004 cycle.
During the past year, the Secret Service swept about 4.3 million people with metal detectors at campaign and official events, twice as many as the 2.2 million checked in 2004, the first election in which it began routinely using magnetometers for events by candidates other than sitting presidents, Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan said.
"That was due to him and his message and his campaign," Sullivan said in an interview. "We saw crowds we had never seen before."
The service also credentialed about three times as many law enforcement and public safety personnel for Denver than for the Republican convention in St. Paul, Minn.: 18,500, compared with 6,000, in large part because of additional or larger venues.
To keep tabs on any potential domestic threats, the FBI and Justice and Homeland Security departments have intensified surveillance of white supremacist and other extremist groups, according to law enforcement officials and private analysts.
Local and state police have also stepped up intelligence work and reporting on suspicious activities, and are working with FBI and Secret Service-led field offices.
Mark Potok, chief of the Southern Poverty Law Center's intelligence project, which monitors hate groups, said that in the more than a decade he has been with the organization, he has never had as much contact with federal law enforcement authorities as he has since Obama began his run.
"Our experience is that not only DHS but the Secret Service are extremely interested in any kind of suggestion of a threat," Potok said. "I never had this degree of contact before."
The Justice Department has cracked down in two publicized cases, arresting a pair of men in Tennessee with ties to an offshoot of Imperial Klans of America and charging them in October with conspiring to launch a killing spree that would begin with African American students and conclude with a drive-by assault on Obama. That month federal authorities also indicted William A. White, commander of the American National Socialist Workers Party, for, among other actions, posting on his Web site a photo of Obama with cross-hairs shaped like a swastika over his face and soliciting funds to distribute the image across the country.
Just days before Obama's Aug. 28 stadium speech in Denver, local authorities arrested three men on drug and gun charges in a feared assassination plot that was later discredited. That afternoon, in security procedures that reporters with him had never seen before, the motorcade was loaded and held for three hours in a secret, underground location before emerging at high speed, picking up Obama and his family at their hotel and whisking them to the stadium.
Tuesday's inauguration will feature the most public display of the cordon that continuously surrounds the U.S. president. Standing on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol, Obama will address a throng that, by some estimates, could exceed 1 million people on the Mall. He will be behind a bulletproof curtain and will be surrounded by more than 23,000 police and National Guard troops. The protective cocoon of downtown Washington will see road, rail, river and air traffic shut down for miles in all directions, and military fighter jets will circle overhead.
Obama will travel the 1.7-mile route down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House inside a Cadillac limousine, part of an upgraded presidential motorcade financed by a $1.4 billion Secret Service budget that has climbed 60 percent since 2001.
The new vehicle is built on a truck chassis and armored like a tank, with dual-hardness steel, aluminum, titanium and ceramic material panels, and plated doors that weigh as much as an airliner cabin door, according to MotorAuthority.com, an auto enthusiast Web site. Other reported features include a firefighting system, shotguns, night-vision cameras, tear-gas cannons and Kevlar-reinforced "run-flat" tires. The Secret Service declined to confirm any of these details.
At the executive mansion, already guarded by rooftop antiaircraft artillery systems and chemical, biological and nuclear detection equipment, Obama will find his new home a fortress recently outfitted with state-of-the-art room alarms and monitoring systems and upgraded security post communications, according to the Secret Service.
Sullivan said that his agency "employs every countermeasure we can employ to protect those we are entrusted to protect," and that Obama is no different, despite what he called greater "sensitivity" among law enforcement, the media and the public. Many of the security enhancements, such as the White House and motorcade changes and added transparent armor, would have occurred for whoever became president.
"There's no doubt the security of this president is going to get more attention from the public. But it's going to get no less attention from us," Sullivan said. "The fact that President-elect Obama is African American, . . . we're aware of the historical significance of it, and I can tell you that every man and woman in this organization is committed to ensuring the safety of him and his family."
Staff writer Joby Warrick and news researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.