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Secret Service must rely on locals abroad

December 14, 2013
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — In the hours before President Barack Obama arrived at a Johannesburg soccer stadium to honor Nelson Mandela, the White House staff was in the dark on key details. Where would the president and Michelle Obama sit? When was Obama supposed to speak? Who else would be on stage when he did?

The result was an array of confusion and security risks that typically would not be tolerated by the Secret Service in the United States, underscoring how the agency is often at the mercy of foreign governments to make arrangements when the president travels overseas.

While there were metal detectors and x-ray machines at the stadium, they were not used on the initial crowds streaming in for the ceremony, according to Associated Press reporters on scene. Many people walked through with little or no screening. Inside the massive stadium there were few signs of the heavy security that routinely would accompany an event with the president and other world leaders.

The VIP section where Obama and dozens of other dignitaries sat, including former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, was protected by a short pane of protective glass that covered only those sitting in the first row of seats. Obama and his wife were seated several rows back. Large crowds were allowed to gather in front of where Obama sat, with no visible security nearby.

And when Obama made his way to the stage to deliver his speech, the South African sign-language interpreter who stood an arm's length away was a schizophrenic prone to violence. The interpreter has since been derided as a fraud and allegedly has a criminal background.

Secret Service officials say the South African government was responsible for the decision to place interpreter Thamsanqa Jantjie just inches from some of the most powerful people in the world during a four-hour memorial service.

"Program items such as stage participants or sign-language interpreters were the responsibility of the host organizing committee," said Secret Service spokesman Edwin Donovan. "For the purposes of this memorial service, this would include vetting them for criminal history and other appropriate records checks."

Brian Dube, a spokesman for the Ministry of State Security, declined to answer questions Saturday about what security measures were in place at the soccer stadium and what sort of background checks and screening were performed on Jantjie. Dube said those issues are part of the investigation into the hiring and use of the bogus interpreter, and he did not know when the investigation would be concluded.

Dube spoke a day after South Africa's government was confronted with a new, chilling allegation about Jantjie: He was reportedly accused of murder 10 years ago. Officials said they were investigating the revelation by the national eNCA TV news station. But they were unable, or unwilling, to explain why a man who says he is schizophrenic with violent tendencies and says he started to hallucinate during Tuesday's memorial service was allowed to get within arm's length of Obama and other world leaders.

Donovan said prearranged security procedures were in place Tuesday and agents were "in close proximity," a standard security practice wherever the president is. He declined to discuss specific security details of Obama's trip to South Africa.

The Secret Service is charged with keeping the president, vice president and their families safe. And presidential trips, whether across the country or around the world, are meticulously planned with every imaginable detail within the agency's control managed and scheduled.

But once the president leaves the United States, the Secret Service isn't always entirely in control.

Joe Hagin, a former deputy White House Chief of Staff for former President George W. Bush, said that to some degree the Secret Service is at the mercy of a host government.

"There's a lot of diplomacy involved in one of these trips," said Hagin, now a partner at Command Consulting Group in Washington. "The White House is very demanding. But there's a fine line in what you can demand and what you can't."

Hagin said some security issues are simply nonnegotiable, including allowing the president to ride in any vehicle that hasn't been flown in by the Secret Service. The Secret Service also won't allow the president to leave his security detail.

"You manage the risks; you can never fully mitigate them," Hagin said.

It was apparent from Obama's arrival in South Africa that security was not up to Secret Service standards. Roadways are typically shut down for the president's motorcade. But the highway between the military base where Air Force One landed and the suburban Johannesburg hotel where he spent time before the memorial service was filled with morning rush hour traffic, forcing the motorcade at times to slow to a crawl.

If Secret Service officials aren't satisfied with security protocols for a foreign trip, the agency can and has advised against going, said Joseph LaSorsa, a retired Secret Service agent.

Hagin said that was the case when then President Ronald Reagan wanted to travel to Egypt for the funeral of Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated in Cairo in 1981.

"Reagan wanted to go and the Secret Service said no," said Hagin, who also worked in the White House under Reagan.

When Pope John Paul II died in Rome in 2005, Hagin said, the decision to have Bush travel to the Vatican was "an easy one."

LaSorsa, who is now a security consultant, said if anyone is to blame for allowing Jantjie on the dais Tuesday, it is the South African government staff member who selected him.

"I don't really see this as a Secret Service issue. It just highlights the risk of international travel," Hagin said.

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Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell, Alan Clendenning and Ray Faure in Johannesburg contributed to this report.

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On Twitter, follow Alicia A. Caldwell at www.twitter.com/acaldwellap and Julie Pace at www.twitter.com/jpaceDC

 
 

 

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