Securing The Perilous Presidential Path

Protecting presidential candidates can be a “nightmare,” security experts say, especially when terrorism provides the unsettling backdrop for a groundbreaking campaign that features among its top candidates an African-American and a woman.

As the candidates meet the public up close and personal, their flesh-pressing requires campaign security experts to find a workable balance between access and safety.

Factor in that Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton attract their own share of vitriolic and sometimes scary detractors, and you’ve got an unusually tense primary season in regard to security.

“People responsible for security at these events hold their breath a lot — they’re weighing the obvious, determined threats against measures they can reasonably affect,” said Kelly McCann, president of Kroll’s Security Group in New York, which protects diplomats and CEOs overseas in addition to offering investigative services.

Campaigns have already made adjustments.

Following a bomb threat in Melbourne, Fla., on Wednesday, Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani was forced to delay and relocate an event in which he unveiled his new tax plan.

After threats were made against Obama early last year, he accepted Secret Service protection, including bomb-sniffing dogs and a dozen agents. Several white supremacist and other hate groups have threatened him on websites and in message board postings that are often filled with violent rhetoric. (Clinton, of course, has had Secret Service protection since her days as first lady.)

Michelle Obama has frequently spoken — including this week in a Newsweek cover story — about her fears that a fanatic could strike at her husband during one of his many public appearances.

All of this makes for careful calculations on the part of those who watch a candidate’s every move — as well as any suspicious moves in campaign audiences.

“The dilemma has always been the friction between the candidate’s need for exposure and their need for security,” says former Secret Service agent Andrew J. O’Connell, who protected 1992 candidates Paul Tsongas and Bill Clinton, and who now heads Fortress Global Investigations’ Washington office.

Giuliani’s threat-related venue change wasn’t the first security incident in this campaign. Last weekend, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly felt the wrath of the Secret Service after he shoved an Obama campaign aide aside to help his cameraman get a better shot of the candidate.

And overly enthusiastic Obama supporters in Iowa and New Hampshire were threatened with arrest by his security teams.

Things can get “a little spooky” along the rope lines at events with unscreened crowds, said former Secret Service agent Joe Russo, who is vice president of special operations at the Manhattan-based T&M Protection Resources. The current event-heavy schedule for candidates is “certainly not the ideal environment” for security, he added.

Some security experts see global terrorists as a constant concern, even in the presidential election.

“With the threat of Al Qaeda, people should be concerned,” said Kroll’s McCann. “If you’ve heard Al Qaeda’s tapes recently, there’s a chastising of fundamentalists, telling them to work together and understand that the U.S. is the enemy. We have hurt Al Qaeda terribly. ... The only way they can regain the status they enjoyed immediately after 9/11 is to create another [big] event.”

But former Secret Service agents Russo and O’Connell are far more concerned about homegrown terrorists — think Timothy McVeigh — than about jihadists in the thrall of Osama bin Laden.

“While those groups would love to get to the president, I don’t think the candidates are on their radar,” Russo said, with O’Connell adding that hisbiggest concern lies with “mentally unstable individuals — the [John] Hinckley type who shows up at an event.”

On the campaign trail here at home, only two candidates so far enjoy Secret Service protection: Obama and Clinton. Other campaigns rely mostly on local and state protection during their public appearances, although Giuliani — who owns a company that offers security services — also carries his own retinue of personal guards.

Politico reporters on the ground with Democratic candidates report that Obama’s security is sometimes “quite edgy,” while Clinton’s protection seems more “laidback” and Edwards has no visible bodyguards. Russo, who provided Secret Service protection for former President Bill Clinton after he left office, says Sen. Clinton is “a real pro” at security, “very adept at putting up with it,” because “she’s been at more different levels than anyone else.”

On the GOP side, Politico journalists say all the candidates except Giuliani are easy to approach, completely open to reporters and citizens. Indeed, both Russo and O’Connell expressed concern that McCain’s security could use beefing up, judging from what they’ve seen on television.

Bomb-sniffing dogs and explosive ordnance sweeps are routinely used at Clinton and Obama gatherings, but for the most part political events in Iowa and New Hampshire rarely featured magnetometers (metal detectors), wands or pat-downs — in short, nothing like what the average traveler goes through on a commuter flight.

Says O’Connell: “There’s a question of assets to deploy — if a candidate appears at a San Francisco event at 6 a.m., then travels down the West Coast to the southern part of the U.S. and shows up for a Miami event at midnight, it’s almost impossible to employ metal detectors at every stop.”

Kroll has not been enlisted by any campaign, and cost might explain why. Hiring outside security services can run a campaign as much as a quarter to a third of its entire operating budget. For “360-degree” protection offered 24 hours a day and seven days a week, the costs can easily top $100,000 a month — perhaps as much as $3 million a year.

“When you consider the number of venues that these candidates have to appear at, they would go broke if they did everything possible [to ensure total security],” said McCann. “They rely on local and state authorities and may have a security consultant on board as an independent contractor, but they still have to consider their bottom line.”

The predominant part of security operations is unseen to the naked eye, say all three experts, consisting of threat assessments, intelligence gathering, preparation of venues and other “backstage scenery.”

There are obvious things that can be done to improve security, such as changing the logistics and routes of caravans at the last minute. “The enemy of the Secret Service is the schedule,” says O’Connell. “The friend is the unknown stops, where candidates appear at a moment’s notice.”

Of course, as the candidates on both sides get whittled down, Secret Service protection will ramp up, with major upgrades possible after the Super Tuesday primaries on Feb. 5.

Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin contributed to this report.