The Senate Returns; the Secret Service, Too

Posted January 18, 2008 at 6:25pm

When Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) returns to Capitol Hill this week, there probably are going to be a few more folks with funny-looking earpieces following him around.

Obama’s Secret Service detail reportedly was increased after his victory in the Iowa caucuses earlier this month, with reporters on the campaign trail noting additional agents present and more frequent and intense security inspections.

A Secret Service spokesman declined last week to comment on the exact size or scope of Obama’s current detail, saying only that “we’re always evaluating our details and make adjustments as necessary.”

But no matter how many agents are trailing Obama — or, for that matter, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who gets Secret Service protection as a former first lady — it will be business as usual when he returns to tackle his Senatorial duties. After all, the Capitol is a place frequented by dignitaries, presidents and royalty, and Congressional security officials have the drill down.

“It just requires a lot more coordination between the Capitol Police and the Secret Service,” Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer, a former Capitol Police chief, said Wednesday. “And the good news is we have an excellent relationship.”

Although the Secret Service is frequently present on Capitol Hill, Capitol Police ultimately has authority over security matters, Gainer said.

Secret Service agents, who are typically armed while roaming the halls of Congress, go through a credentialing process in order to come and watch over protectees at the Capitol, and the agents carry identification issued by the Capitol Police, Gainer said.

“All the key law enforcement agencies who have regular action on the Hill are credentialed,” said Gainer, noting that many U.S. marshals and FBI agents go through the same process. “The police department has a very, very good sense of who is in the building, is armed, and where they are.”

Protecting the protectees is really a partnership, with plainclothes Capitol Police officers frequently accompanying Secret Service agents on the Capitol grounds, Gainer said.

And since there are a few places on Capitol Hill where access is limited to Capitol Police (those locations, not surprisingly, aren’t public), police sometimes will take over the protection duties if a protectee enters one of those spots.

“It’s rather seamless from our perspective,” Gainer said.

To monitor threats and plan for events such as the State of the Union address, the Secret Service, the police department and other Congressional security officials frequently speak about security concerns, “just to talk about where we are,” Gainer noted. It’s part of the daily routine for the Capitol Police, he added.

Sgt. Kimberly Schneider, spokeswoman for the department, echoed Gainer’s comments, noting that the two agencies “have a very close, positive working relationship.”

“We work together on so many important events, such as [the] State of the Union,” she said.

Obama’s office did not return a call seeking comment last week, and his campaign has frequently declined to discuss concerns surrounding the Senator’s personal security.

And it isn’t entirely clear — perhaps for good reason — what Obama’s protection team will look like once he returns.

Reports from the campaign front have said Obama’s security levels have increased dramatically in recent weeks, perhaps even rivaling President Bush’s detail — so don’t be surprised to see a cluster of Secret Service agents following the first-term Senator as he makes his way from his office in the Hart Senate Office Building to the Capitol.

At the same time, there hasn’t been an overabundance of talk among Capitol Hill officials about the detail. A House Administration spokesman said last week Obama’s upcoming return hasn’t even been discussed all that much on the House side.

So far, Clinton and Obama are the only presidential candidates who have been given Secret Service protection. Obama received protection in May, the earliest any presidential candidate has ever gotten protection, after there were indications of threats against him. Clinton’s Secret Service detail is the same that all first ladies receive after leaving the White House.

When Clinton first came to the Senate in 2001, some argued the agents might be a distraction to her work. But she has since blended in as much as possible, serving as a low-key Senator focused on New York issues (who also is running a presidential campaign).

Under normal circumstances, the Secret Service is authorized to protect any major presidential or vice presidential candidate and their spouses within 120 days of a general presidential election. But it is possible that more candidates will soon be under Secret Service protection.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the head of the House Homeland Security committee, sent Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff a letter last week asking that the Secret Service provide protection to others in the race. Because the presidential primary is still wide-open and attracting an unprecedented amount of media attention, the nominees provide a high-profile target for terrorists, Thompson wrote.

So, with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and fellow presidential hopefuls Reps. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and Ron Paul (R-Texas) still fighting for their party’s nomination, a few more Secret Service agents might soon be spotted on Capitol Hill.

“It is routine,” Gainer said. “Not ho-hum, but routine.”