Book Says Obama's Life Is at Risk
Editor's Note: With Obama the target of hate speech and over 30 death threats a day, the FBI needs to hear that it can't let budget shortfalls get in the way of the president's life. Will you join AlterNet and Credo and sign a petition calling for the FBI to do everything necessary to confront threats to Obama and expand and fully fund efforts to protect the president of the United States?
Every American knows that politics can be an ugly business, rife with mudslinging, underhandedness and, in the worst of times, outright sabotage.
Like it or not, the collective American voting public is as much inclined towards emotional reactionism as it is rational reflection. The former is a trait that both political parties, at times, do their best to exploit; and the conservative right is doing a heck of a job at it right now, dredging up fears of non-existent "death panels" and rationing in an attempt to derail, or at least dilute, Democratic health-care reform initiatives.
Most of us have come to accept the worst politics has to offer as a price worth paying for a democratic system in which every voice, no matter how repugnant, has the right to be heard. But lately the level of hostility directed at President Obama and progressive lawmakers from some corners of society has crossed the line from disturbing to downright scary.
From "birther"-led citizen grand juries charging the president with fraud, to gun-toting protesters outside presidential events, organized opposition to the new administration and its policies has taken on a decidedly radical bent, giving rise to the unthinkable: what if some lunatic, or a group of them, decides to transition from vicious rhetoric to violent action?
As the president works through his first year in office, those charged with protecting him from such a potentiality are finding they have their work cut out for them; and lately some commentators have taken to questioning whether they are fully up to the task.
In his best-selling new book, "In the President's Secret Service," journalist Ronald Kessler says the increased threat environment along with inadequate resources have led to a culture of "corner cutting" at the Secret Service that may be putting the commander in chief at risk.
Over the course of approximately a year-and-a-half, Kessler -- who has long covered politics inside the Beltway and has written books on the FBI and the CIA -- was given unprecedented access to active agents all the way up to the director, as well as former agents going back to the Kennedy administration.
According to the agents he interviewed, President Obama -- whose Secret Service codename is Renegade -- is the target of more than 30 threats a day, more than four times (or 400 percent) the number received by his predecessor George W. Bush. These threats can vary from a lone individual mouthing off to friends after a few drinks, to haphazard plots, to full-fledged conspiracies.
By far, the vast majority of the threats the president has received to date fall into the first category; and while most are unfounded, the Secret Service is responsible for chasing down every lead. As a result, Kessler says the agency is overtaxed to the point of skipping important training and evaluation sessions, and cutting back on the number of agents assigned to tactical teams.
"We have half the number of agents we need, but requests for more agents have fallen on deaf ears at headquarters," one agent told Kessler.
By all accounts the president is both respectful to, and cooperative with, the suggestions of his protection detail; and Kessler says he received no indication from agents that the president has been forced to modify his work schedule in response to the increased danger.
Despite their initial cooperation on the book, the Secret Service's official position on the assertions made by Kessler is that they are exaggerated at best, and in some cases patently false. Among other things, Darrin Blackford, a spokesperson for the agency, takes issue with the claim that the Secret Service is under-resourced.
"Any suggestion that the Secret Service has 'cut corners' in carrying out our protective mission is just false," Blackford said. "[W]e currently dedicate more personnel, funding and technical assets to our protective mission than at any time in our history and our protective measures and methods continue to increase in scope and complexity, not diminish."
Blackford wouldn't confirm or deny the threat figures in Kessler's book, citing agency policy, but he questions the author's methods.
"We don't talk about the number of threats against a presidentnor would we comment on an increase in threats, but I can tell you the 400 percent increase that Kessler cites came from a retired agent, not a current employee," he said.
Though Kessler wouldn't say who his source was on the 400 percent increase figure, he countered Blackford by insisting, "They have no idea where I got [those figures] from."
While the exact extent of the increase may be a subject of contention, the fact that there has been an escalation of threats against the new president is not in question. The head of the Secret Service, Director Mark Sullivan, admitted as much in testimony in March before a House Appropriations subcommittee.
"As the international, domestic, and individual threat environment of the country was elevated during this period, so too was the threat environment for Secret Service-protected individuals, venues, and infrastructure," Sullivan testified. "Since these trends remain at high levels, the Secret Service will use designated fundsto hire and train additional staff to evaluate the increased volume of threat information received related to the new president, vice president, and their families."
Perhaps not surprisingly in a country that only saw school integration 40 years ago, the bulk of the threats to date have been racial in nature, most in the form of hate mail.
"Most threats are in the form of letters addressed to the president, rather than emails or calls," said Kessler. "Potential assassins get a great sense of satisfaction by mailing a letter. They think that if they mail it, the president will personally read it."
The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Secret Service, has responded by increasing the amount of money it spends on presidential protection and investigation. DHS budget documents show the Secret Service got $1.46 billion in 2009 of which $806 million is earmarked for protection - a 16 percent increase over 2008 ($100 million of which was approved in the 2009 Omnibus bill signed by the president in March). An additional $60 million goes to protective intelligence, while funding for White House mail screening more than doubled, from $16 million to $34 million.
But critics say that's not nearly enough. "People need to think about what would happen if there were an assassination and in the ensuing investigations, of course the finger of blame would be pointed at the Secret Service for not doing its job and that's what needs to be recognized," Kessler said.
From the moment he decided to run, Barack Obama was acutely aware of the significance of his campaign to be the first Black president and the backlash it would spark from certain societal fringes.
At his request, the Secret Service began offering protection to the candidate on May 3, 2007, the day after he announced his run, and a full 18 months before the election. It was the earliest point in a campaign the Secret Service had ever begun protecting a candidate. Obama was assigned a Secret Service detail equivalent to a full presidential protection team, an unprecedented level of protection for a candidate.
Things remained relatively quiet until Obama won the Democratic nomination in April 2008; reported threats against the candidate peaked in August and escalated steadily right up to the day of the election. By mid-October 2008, according to published reports, the Secret Service was seeing a dramatic increase in the number of threats, coinciding with accusations by Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin that Obama "palled around with terrorists" - an allusion to his relationship with sixties radical William Ayers.
The Lunatic Fringe
Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's (SPLC) Intelligence Project, says his group saw a definite spike is racist "chatter" following the election of President Obama. The increase in activity coincides with a more general rise in extremism the group has monitored over the past several years. A recent SPLC report identified 926 active hate groups last year, a 4 percent increase over 2007 and more than 50 percent higher than in 2000.
The SPLC study is one of several that have noted an increased level of extremism. An analysis issued the day after the election by the private intelligence agency Stratfor, noted: "We would expect federal authorities to uncover many more plots to attack the president that have been hatched by white supremacist ideologues."
And an April 2009 report from the Department of Homeland Security warned of a growing risk of a homegrown terror attack in the wake of the recession and the election. As conservatives scrambled to discredit the DHS report, in May, abortion doctor George Tiller was gunned down by a right-to-life zealot during Sunday mass in Wichita, and in June an 88 year-old neo-Nazi shot up the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., killing a guard.
Potok says that beyond the usual backlash against immigration, hate and militia groups have been reenergized by the economic crisis, the ascendancy of a progressive agenda on Capitol Hill, and the election of the first African American president. The day after Obama was elected, activity surged on hate sites across the Web and several prominent white supremacist groups saw a spike in membership requests.
Taken together, the factors amount to what experts call a "perfect storm" for extremism to blossom. Meanwhile, Potok says the barrier between the white nationalist movement and traditionally less racist elements of the radical right is beginning to recede, leading to more collaboration between the groups.
"In a sense there are distinct aspects of the radical right and the more nonracial part of the radical right, the patriot movement or militia movement, you couldn't fairly describe it as a white supremacist or white nationalist movement," said Potok. "Yet the militia movement as it is reemerging is more racialized than it used to be."
Potok says the radicalization of the health-care debate, characterized by widely exaggerated claims and attempts to paint the president as a socialist, is only making things worse.
"These kind of ideas are getting mainstreamed in many cases by people in positions of real authority," he said. "I think that mainstream politicians and cable news commentators have contributed in a really vile and shameful way."