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."

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS

But the next president might. 

IOS 8 Comes Out Today. Do Not Put It on Your iPhone 4S.

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Science

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

The Ungodly Horror of Having a Bug Crawl Into Your Ear and Scratch Away at Your Eardrum

My Father Was James Brown. I Watched Him Beat My Mother. Then I Married Someone Like Him.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 17 2014 5:21 PM Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS But the next president might. 
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
  Life
Gentleman Scholar
Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM Should Men Still Open Doors for Women? Or is it ungentlemanly to do so at all?  
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 4:36 PM Is Nonfiction the Patriarch of Literary Genres?
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 5:31 PM Did You Catch Walter White’s Blink-and-You’ll-Miss-It Cameo in Godzilla?
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 5:26 PM If Fixing Global Warming Is Free, What’s the Holdup?
  Health & Science
Jurisprudence
Sept. 17 2014 4:49 PM Schooling the Supreme Court on Rap Music Is it art or a true threat of violence?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 17 2014 3:51 PM NFL Jerk Watch: Roger Goodell How much should you loathe the pro football commissioner?