The Secret Service's Real Secret

Politics and policy.
July 24 1998 3:30 AM

The Secret Service's Real Secret

It's not the president's conversations.

(Continued from Page 1)

The privilege squabble, in fact, marks the first time the Dead President defense has failed. In Justice Department briefs and in private meetings, the Secret Service insisted that the failure to recognize the privilege: would result in "profound and predictable peril" to the president, "could mean the difference between life or death," would endanger "the integrity of our national security," etc. The appeals court rapped the agency for its scare tactics, saying it must base its conclusions "on solid facts and a realistic appraisal of the danger rather than on vague fears extrapolated beyond any foreseeable threat."

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The Secret Service is not incompetent or corrupt, or even especially greedy. In fact, it is almost universally admired for its professionalism and efficiency. Even so, its ascendancy is troublesome. It has made standard--even admired--measures that ought to be intolerable in a democracy. A half-century ago, a president could drive through city streets in a normal car with a few bodyguards, and anyone could stroll up to the front door of the White House. Of course, ours is a different and more dangerous age: There are undoubtedly more and more sophisticated threats to the president than we can imagine.

But the expansion of the Secret Service has normalized a paramilitary presidency. No one blinks at: 40-car motorcades that shut down interstates and gridlock traffic, the 200-plus-strong Secret Service delegation that accompanies the president abroad, the transformation of the open White House into an impenetrable fortress. During public events, it is perfectly acceptable for Secret Service agents to approach crowd members and yank their hands out of their pockets to confirm they are not hiding weapons. It is unquestioned that the president should be chauffeured in a car that costs $1.5 million. It has become a deep inconvenience for average citizens to see their president, and a deep inconvenience for the president to see average citizens. There is something unseemly about this excessive security, and something undemocratic.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., perhaps the only lawmaker who ever criticized the Secret Service before the privilege flap, said in a 1992 Senate speech that the agency has made the "insufferable" routine. "I don't know if the agency itself is aware of how arrogant and presumptuous it has become." Two years ago, Moynihan remarked that soon, the service will "have a billion-dollar budget. And still just one president, one vice president."

It isn't that the Secret Service's precautions are definitively unnecessary. It's that no one knows whether they are necessary and no one is willing to ask. Perfection is impossible in presidential security. No matter how much we spend, the goal will always recede. A determined assassin will be able to find a way to kill the president. And the Secret Service will be able to find a way to spend more money to prevent it. (In fact, the agency seems to have found most of those ways already.)

No one wants the president assassinated. But should it be forbidden to ask if we could spend less and do less to protect him?

If you missed the link to the Backstory on the Secret Service, here it is again. Here's the, and here's the one on.

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