There’s no doubt, that had the president or vice president on this very short time frame gone to participate in this event that took place outdoors with more than a million people in attendance, that it would have significantly impacted the ability of those who attended the march to participate in the way that they did yesterday.
At its most basic level, protection of government dignitaries is about balancing the imperatives of security with the necessity of public presence. Unfortunately, for American presidents, even going for a walk is a dangerous endeavor.
In 1835, when President Jackson was walking through the Capitol building, two pistol misfires saved his life.
In 1975, President Ford was nearly shot walking through a Sacramento park.
In 1982, Ronald Reagan walked out of a Washington hotel and walked past an unscreened crowd. A bullet ended up one inch from his heart.
Keenly attuned to this record (agents study prior assassination attempts meticulously), it’s no surprise if the Secret Service didn’t want President Obama to attend Sunday’s freedom march in Paris. At such a high-profile event in a city already under a severe terrorist threat, the agency would have feared a wide array of unpredictable threats.
And the Secret Service does not like unpredictability. Just look at how agents reacted when Michelle Obama tried to hug some school children.
Nevertheless, White House insinuations that Secret Service concerns are behind Obama’s absence from Paris are fundamentally unserious. (For what it’s worth, the administration later seems to have tried a different line — apologizing and saying Obama didn’t make the decision.)
For a start, contrary to what some commentators suggest, the Paris march was always going to be highly secure. With security led by the French equivalent of the Secret Service — the GSPR, whose membership includes French special forces — and supported by the extensive and highly capable security apparatus of the French state, access to President Obama would have been very tightly controlled. Ultimately, with a planned event like the march, effective security rests on access control. And by limiting public access to VIPs, by screening the route for explosives and hidden weapons, and by limiting firearms access to highly reliable security details (the U.S., the U.K., Israel, etc.), the threat environment could and would have been managed.
The claim that Paris would have been too risky at this point in time falls apart under the most obvious comparisons. After all, American presidents regularly make trips to far more dangerous countries where they must rely upon far less reliable host-nation security forces. Take Pakistan: As Elizabeth Bumiller explained back in 2006, the challenges posed by a presidential visit to the country are huge, and yet presidents have gone there regularly. Preparation can often be done a long time ahead of time, but improvisation is necessary, too.
Why? Because they judge that American national interests require it.
Although it’s obviously open to debate, I would submit that whether in providing an unequivocal signal of support for freedom or offering solidarity to the people of France, the U.S. had much to gain from sending its head of state to the march. Moreover, had the president said he wanted to go, the Secret Service — the world’s finest protective service — would have worked with the French government to make it happen. That’s what they do.
Instead, however, the White House is ludicrously claiming that President Obama played no role in the decision to ignore Paris (perhaps he was asleep?). Perhaps — though we still haven’t seen one — there were good reasons for his absence from the scene. Regardless, the Secret Service was not one of them.