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Secret Service bungles underscore the never ending peril to President Obama

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

The Secret Service has taken a much deserved battering for an armed felon roaming free in the White House, fence jumpers, leaks of President Obama’s travel schedule to then GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and a congressional impostor getting into an area where the President was at a Congressional Black Caucus function. The bungles cost the job of the director, ignited loud cries for a total overhaul of the service, and a guarded vote of confidence in the service from Obama. But the problems with the service, and the breeches, are only the tip of the iceberg in assessing the peril to Obama.

The Secret Service for obvious reasons has steadfastly refused to discuss threats to Obama or any other president. Their terse response to all requests for information on the threat level is always “we take all threats to the president seriously.” This hasn’t satisfied anyone, and has only caused presidential threat watchers to fill in the blanks. The most often cited unofficial report on the threat level to Obama is that the Secret Service fields on average about 30 threats a day, and that Obama has gotten more death threats than any other modern day president. Obama bashers pooh pooh this as so much hogwash, and cite their own unnamed Secret Service sources that claim the threat level against Obama is no greater than it has been against other presidents.

The point is not to play a numbers game comparing death threats against Obama to other presidents. The point is that the threat level against Obama is real and deadly because he is the president, and because he is the first black president.

As have other presidents, he receives assassination threats continuously, and in gun crazed America this is a potential lethal prescription for disaster. Also, what isn’t debatable is that that number of threats to him has been steady before and during his campaigns and increased after he took office. Federal law is very clear on Threatening the President of the United States. It is a class D felony under United States Code Title 18, Section 871. It consists of knowingly and willfully mailing or otherwise making “any threat to take the life of, to kidnap, or to inflict bodily harm upon the President of the United States.”

Despite the merciless mauling the Secret Service has taken for its bungles, it does as it says take the threats against the president seriously, and diligently investigates every one of them. In a few cases, prosecutors have brought charges. But here is the problem, in fact several problems: How seriously do other public officials take them? There have been countless reports, cases, and instances where individuals have posted inflammatory pictures of gun toting armed men with pictures of Obama as a bull’s eye target, protestors carrying signs with violent threats against Obama, and websites that inch perilously close to wishing bodily harm to him.

The Secret Service has other woes on top of the at times sloppy way it has handled Obama’s security, namely staffing. At one point in 2010 there was a report that the Secret Service was understaffed and under-resourced. The recent lapses also prompted a spate of complaints from unnamed Secret Service agents of overwork, low morale, and fear of job security. The Service has denied all of this and insists it has the resources and motivated personnel to meet any security issue involving the president. But the president’s hands-on meet-the-people routine is a constant challenge to any protective and enforcement agency.

The concern over Obama’s safety has been intense since he announced he would seek the presidency in February 2007. He had the dubious distinction of being the earliest presidential contender to be assigned Secret Service protection on the campaign trail. This didn’t ease the jitters over his safety. Several congressional members even then demanded that Secret Service officials provide all the resources and personnel they could to ensure Obama’s and the other presidential candidates’ security. They heard the whispers and nervous questions from his constituents about Obama’s safety.

During the presidential campaign in 2008, the flood of crank, crackpot and screwball threats that promised murder and mayhem toward Obama continued to pour in. This prompted the Secret Service to tighten security and take even more elaborate measures to ensure his safety. In the wake of the intense heat it has taken for its recent bungles, there almost certainly will be a revamp of some of its procedures, greater use of technology to assess threat potentials and a probable shake-up at the top of the Secret Service leadership hierarchy. This is all welcome, but it won’t change the one terrifying reality. That is that any president will always be a visible and inviting target for any kook, crank and zany to level a threat at. With Obama that peril has been never-ending.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.

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