The Challenge of Protecting the Most Unpredictable POTUS in History

The US Secret Service is currently protecting the most controversial president in the history of the United States


Photo: AP

From its beginning, Donald Trump's tumultuous election campaign did not leave any room for doubt that here was a completely different candidate than all the candidates that have run for president in the past few years. His bluntness towards political rivals and even more bluntness towards certain populations, primarily women, Hispanics, migrants (with an emphasis on those emigrating from Muslim countries) undoubtedly strengthened his base of supporters that contrary to every prediction continued to grow.

On the other hand, his remarks created antagonism and growing anger in direct proportion on the other side of the Rubicon, and in practice this created polarization. If this polarization had, and it most certainly did, have significance when it came to security during the presidential race, as things are now, it will remove more sleep to the Secret Service’s chiefs’ eyes in the future.

The huge demonstrations that are happening across the United States and in other countries, some of which are accompanied by violence, are indications of growing anger at the way Donald Trump is approaching the start of his presidential career. With no less than ninety-nine demonstrations taking place in the United States in conjunction with the swearing-in ceremony, this amount was ten times the number of demonstrations held in parallel to the previous two presidents' inaugurations. Protests have been intensifying by those who oppose Trump in the United States and around the world since the inauguration and in parallel to various presidential decisions that Trump has made.

Donald Trump is likely to break the dubious record of the most threatened president at both home and abroad, which is held by Lyndon Johnson who is so far considered the most threatened president in American history. The threat to Johnson stemmed mainly from the waves of resistance to the Vietnam War during his time in office, and as a result he was persuaded by the Secret Service to limit his public speeches to safe locations, such as military bases.

The presidential decisions and the recent executive orders signed by Trump, especially those that prohibit the entry of Muslims from a group of seven Muslim nations into the United States, inflame the atmosphere and pose another dangerous potential for spurring attacks by individuals, groups feeling threatened or the mentally ill who think they have to save the nation.

Let's not be misleading here. The threats against the American president outside the US are far greater than domestic threats, but experience has shown that domestic threats are not something to be taken lightly.

As a result of the high threat level both at home and abroad, the inauguration ceremony of the forty-fifth President of the United States has been exceptionally secure, even with regard to the Secret Service's security operations. More than 28,000 police officers (both uniformed and plainclothes), National Guard service members, auxiliary security forces, and the Secret Service, which is responsible for the president’s security and the inauguration ceremony were tasked for this operation.

If the Secret Service’s chief lacks a headache from all this, during the ceremony, he is required to secure the incoming president, outgoing president, and all the former presidents and the foreign protectees who participated in the ceremony.

The security of the president's swearing-in ceremony does not fall short of a large-scale military operation. The strict security arrangements and the various measures taken, some of which are conspicuous (thus also providing deterrence), there are some measures that are less prominent. However, the interesting aspect of all this is rather the hidden security measures and arrangements, with special emphasis on responding to cyber and airborne threats, including the increasing threat of a terrorist attack with drones (following a drone crashing on the White House’s lawn on January 2015).

Securing the American president is a complex task, especially securing pre-planned events since because they are known to the public is an advantage for the adversary. Using the various security routines for deception to minimize an adversary's advantages and maximize security benefits is less relevant in securing such an event. In an event such as the swearing-in ceremony in which every action is known beforehand, including the outgoing president’s departure by helicopter to Andrews Air Force Base, from which he took off with the presidential plane for a vacation (a complex security operation in of itself for which the Secret Service is also responsible), requires a comprehensive response. This response is based on early real-time intelligence, many technologies, skilled personnel in the various echelons and, ultimately, a great deal of coordination with all the many agencies and organizations involved in the operation.

In this context, it should be noted that the multiplicity of factors involved in each security operation increases the level of risk and exposure. The process of securing the ceremony may have ended, but the routine that follows is just as challenging. The protectee's cooperation, in this case, Donald Trump, is a very significant and influential issue regarding the ability to implement security measures.

On the face of it seems that Trump's colorfulness and his apparent tendency to underestimate professional security officials may create a problem in achieving optimal security. This is probably a temporary problem, one way or another his awareness of security needs will increase.

One of the most complex areas in this context is the security screening that is required for the president's environment. Due to the high threat, it is likely that more emphasis will be placed on limiting and creating sterile areas in order to ensure that the president will not reach contact with an unfiltered audience.

The Secret Service is confident that it had learned the lessons of the embarrassing mishap that occurred in November 2009 when an uninvited couple managed to sneak into a dinner at the White House and come within arm's reach of President Obama. The very fact that the fault was explained as a "human error" indicates a loophole that requires treatment.  Another aspect regarding screening, but this time it is about screening in the context of employee reliability and security background checks of all those around the president, especially when it comes to such drastic government changes. This is a sensitive matter that requires appropriate treatment, not just in the recruitment stage, but also in supervising the new staff throughout their years in office, since security screening is not a one-time operation upon entry to the job, it is an ongoing process.

The security of President Trump and his family have complex environmental implications and, of course, heavy economic repercussions, especially if the president decides to visit and stay from time to time in his home in Manhattan. Securing the president in an apartment building in a dense urban environment (with an emphasis on height) is quite different from security in the White House’s environs in Washington.

This is a complex matter that requires large numbers of personnel, including snipers, SWAT teams, the installation of various technologies including radiation detectors (without further elaborating), changes in traffic arrangements and the placing of barriers required for the security of the president's residence in the central Manhattan skyline. Given the need to provide a response to many possible forms of attack, this is a complex operation that will have wide logistical implications, including any unavoidable heaviness on the vehicular and pedestrian traffic. It is said that securing Trump in New York amounts to one million dollars per day and that the mayor of New York City expects the security costs to be reimbursed to the NYPD, and that the Secret Service’s annual budget is 1.5 billion dollars. This is a large sum but considered the tasks required this is not an unreasonable amount.

Over the years, the Secret Service has undergone various changes in both its responsibility and missions. In 2003, and in the wake of changes in federal security systems after 9/11, the service moved from the Department of the Treasury (where it began its original career in securing the currency) to the Department of Homeland Security. This move was a practical and obvious expression to the overwhelming weight of security activity as a result of intensification and expansion of threats.

The president’s security is currently at a crossroads and obligates those responsible for taking drastic steps in securing President Trump against a growing trend of threats - including those stemming from the exploitation of airborne platforms and cyber attacks, in addition to the traditional threats. One example occurred again last week (March 10) when a 26-year-old man jumped over the White House fence and reached the southern entrance door while the president was home. Amazingly enough, the suspect stayed in the courtyard for about 17 minutes until he was caught. This is an event that is certainly being investigated in depth, especially since this is not the first time an intruder has succeeded in penetrating such a place.

It is clear that the threat level is increasing in light of the public atmosphere, as well as the terror organizations’ high level of motivation, especially the Islamists, who have accumulated tremendous military experience over the past decade and a half. The threat level also rises as a result of technological advances which the enemy knows how to exploit. On the other hand, however, the Secret Service is known for its uncompromising performance. In summary, the president of the United States is in the best hands possible.


Meir Gershuni is a former senior member of the Israel Security Agency (ISA) and the owner of a security consulting company.

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