WASHINGTON — These are hectic times at the U.S. Secret Service, which faces a big-time security strain as the 2008 presidential campaign heats up.
The agency is planning to hire and train 103 new agents to protect President Bush when he leaves office on Jan. 20, 2009. And the scramble to replace him is expected to put an unprecedented burden on the Secret Service, which is already spending $44,000 a day on around-the-clock security for Illinois Democratic Sen. Barack Obama.
Obama, who has talked openly about the possibility of getting shot, is the first of 18 presidential candidates to be assigned a security detail. Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York is the only other candidate who’s getting protection, qualifying as a former first lady.
Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan said the agency is "planning for historic demands" but promised Congress that it will continue its investigations program during the 2008 campaign and beyond.
Overall, the Secret Service wants to spend more than $100 million on campaign protection in 2008, roughly $35 million more than it spent in 2004.
Sullivan said the agency expects Bush "to be active and maintain a high profile after he leaves office" in 18 months, necessitating the agency to prepare by hiring more agents now. To handle the extra work for the presidential campaign, the department is planning to borrow 200 immigration officers and shift 250 Secret Service agents from investigations to security details. And the agency, which has a total of 6,500 employees, is proposing a $10 million cut in spending on investigations.
"We've been down this road before," Eric Zahren, a spokesman for the Secret Service in Washington, said in an interview this week. "This is something that we look at every four years - these adjustments are necessary." Some members of Congress fear that Secret Service agents will have to spend less time working on high-profile financial crimes. The agents, who are part of the Homeland Security Department, specialize in electronic crimes and counterfeit and identity theft cases.
"While I understand the need for protection and the demands of the looming campaign, I'm nervous a bit about the impact this will have on investigations," said Rep. Harold Rogers of Kentucky, the ranking Republican of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security.
Pitching his budget request to the subcommittee, Sullivan said that's bound to happen. "I would have to agree with you that our protective mission has taken away from our field people as far as their ability to be back in the field to conduct their investigations," he said. "There is no doubt about that. There is no denying that."
The Secret Service protects the president and vice president, their families, former presidents, visiting foreign heads of state and government and major presidential and vice presidential candidates and their spouses. In addition, the agency will take the lead in securing the national political conventions in Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul next year. It's the first year the Secret Service is providing protection with no sitting president or vice president running as a candidate, which is adding to the workload.
The Secret Service plans to use more than 500 agents to provide protection during the 2008 campaign. The agency won't disclose how many agents it will use to protect specific candidates or events. But its plan will affect its 116 domestic offices. Agents and officers in field offices will be reassigned for three weeks from their investigative duties to work on campaign events, and those rotations will remain in effect until the end of the campaign.
"We knew going in that this was going to be a wide-open campaign and for that reason even a little more challenging than what we're used to dealing with," Zahren said. "But we'll see how it plays out. … We're ready, and that's really all we can be."
Demands for security have been rising at the Secret Service since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The Bush administration doubled the number of top officials who qualify for protection, from 26 to 54, adding the White House chief of staff and homeland security advisers, among others.
Congressional appropriators are gearing up.
"Given the number of people that have already announced their candidacy in both parties, I suspect the service is going to be quite busy over the next two years," said Rep. David Price, a Democrat from North Carolina who heads the Homeland Security appropriations subcommittee.
Price said the agency's performance in protecting people "is virtually perfect." But he criticized its investigative work, saying performance there "has dropped off."
The Secret Service got an early start on the 2008 campaign. Obama has been assigned a security detail since May 3, more than eight months before the first votes will be cast in the Iowa caucuses. That's the earliest a presidential candidate has ever qualified for protection.
Major presidential candidates and their spouses generally do not qualify for protection until 120 days before a general election, but there have been exceptions. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a Democrat, received protection in 1984 and 1988 after receiving threats during his presidential runs. Decisions to provide early protection are made by a special five-member committee, made up of top House and Senate leaders of both parties.
While the Secret Service won't say what prompted the decision to protect Obama at such an early date, the senator and his wife have spoken publicly of the possibility of an assassination. And the first-term senator has been drawing particularly large crowds on the campaign trail this year.
Zahren said the budget plan, which still must be approved by Congress, has not resulted in any complaints from local field offices so far. But he said it's too soon to assess any impact.
"I think that’s going to play out," he said. "We haven't really seen the results from that yet. But what we try to do is minimize the impact by prioritizing and looking at the high-impact crimes."
But he said the department is confident it will be able to handle its dual mission of providing protection and investigating crimes.
"We’ve been around for 142 years," Zahren said. "And since 1901 we've been protecting presidents. So the dual mission is something that's across the board for us. Every supervisor out in the field realizes that they have responsibilities in both areas. Is it a challenge? Yeah, absolutely."