Secret Service agents are famous for their willingness to take a bullet for the president. Less famous is their willingness to take out a heckler for the president.
Officially, the Secret Service does not concern itself with unarmed, peaceful demonstrators who pose no danger to the commander in chief. But that policy was inoperative here Thursday when seven AIDS activists who heckled President Bush during a campaign appearance were shoved and pulled from the room -- some by their hair, one by her bra straps -- and then arrested for disorderly conduct and detained for an hour.
After Bush campaign bouncers handled the evictions, Secret Service agents, accompanied by Bush's personal aide, supervised the arrests and detention of the activists and blocked the news media from access to the hecklers.
The Bush campaign has made unprecedented efforts to control access to its events. Sometimes, people are required to sign oaths of support before attending events with Bush or Vice President Cheney. At times, buses of demonstrators are diverted by police to idle in parking lots while supporters are waved in. And the Secret Service has played an unusual role; one agent cooperated with a plan by the Bush campaign last month to prevent former senator Max Cleland (Ga.), a Kerry ally, from handing a letter to the agent outside Bush's Texas ranch.
The seven activists, with the AIDS group Act Up Philadelphia, signed up as volunteers and came to the event site, a warehouse here in suburban Philadelphia, the night before to set up with the other volunteers. The activists were admitted Thursday to the Bush speech, which they quickly disrupted with chants of "Bush lies, people die," and signs saying, "Bush: Global AIDS Liar."
Bush forced a smile as the seven interrupted his speech in waves. As the crowd drowned them out with chants of "Four More Years," the demonstrators were led roughly from the room by event ushers as a few attendees shouted "traitors." Outside, plainclothes Secret Service agents, joined by Blake Gottesman, Bush's personal aide, circled the demonstrators.
One uniformed Secret Service agent complained to a colleague that "the press is having a field day" with the disruption -- and the agents quickly clamped down. Journalists were told that if they sought to approach the demonstrators, they would not be allowed to return to the event site -- even though their colleagues were free to come and go. An agent, who did not give his name, told one journalist who was blocked from returning to the speech that this was punishment for approaching the demonstrators and that there was a "different set of rules" for reporters who did not seek out the activists.
In the confusion, even Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) had to cool his heels for 10 minutes before the Secret Service would let him leave the building.
The seven hecklers were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, then kept out of sight until Bush departed. They were left with instructions to call for a court appearance. One of them, Jen Cohn, said Secret Service agents interrogated the demonstrators and stood by as a police officer handled the arrests.
Tom Mazur, a spokesman for the Secret Service in Washington, said dealing with hecklers is the job of "the host committee and local enforcement" officers. "The Secret Service normally doesn't get involved." Mazur referred questions about the event to the Philadelphia field office, where Agent in Charge James Borasi was not available for comment.
A White House spokeswoman, Claire Buchan, said Bush's personal aide did keep a reporter away from the demonstrators but was not involved in the activists' detention.