The Washington Post raised eyebrows Friday by investigating something the president’s backers would consider lowly “Drudge fodder” – the high costs of Obama’s travel, especially in less developed nations.
The headline was “Presidential travel, kingly sums: Document details staggering logistics of Obama trip to Africa.” Reporters Carol Leonnig and David Nakamura added broad details:
Hundreds of U.S. Secret Service agents will be dispatched to secure facilities in Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania. A Navy aircraft carrier or amphibious ship, with a fully staffed medical trauma center, will be stationed offshore in case of an emergency.
Military cargo planes will airlift in 56 support vehicles, including 14 limousines and three trucks loaded with sheets of bullet-proof glass to cover the windows of the hotels where the first family will stay. Fighter jets will fly in shifts, giving 24-hour coverage over the president’s airspace, so they can intervene quickly if an errant plane gets too close.
The elaborate security provisions — which will cost the government tens of millions of dollars — are outlined in a confidential internal planning document obtained by The Washington Post. While the preparations appear to be in line with similar travels in the past, the document offers an unusual glimpse into the colossal efforts to protect the U.S. commander in chief on trips abroad.
Any journey by the president, such as one scheduled next week for Northern Ireland and Germany, is an immense and costly logistical challenge. But the trip to Africa is complicated by a confluence of factors that could make it one of the most expensive of Obama’s tenure, according to people familiar with the planning.
The first family is making back-to-back stops from June 26 to July 3 in three countries where U.S. officials are providing nearly all the resources, rather than depending heavily on local police forces, military authorities or hospitals for assistance.
The Obamas also planned a Tanzanian safari on the trip, “which would have required the president’s special counterassault team to carry sniper rifles with high-caliber rounds that could neutralize cheetahs, lions or other animals if they became a threat, according to the planning document.”
They decided against it when the Post asked questions about it. Instead, they’ll visit Robben Island off South Africa, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. (Senator Obama made that trip in 2006.)
“Unfortunately, we couldn’t do both,” said Obama spokesman Josh Earnest, but “Internal administration documents circulated in April show that the Obama family was scheduled to go to both Robben Island and the safari park, according to a person familiar with the plans.”
The Post gently waited until paragraph 15 to note that perhaps this comes as government agencies are “wrestling with mandatory across-the-board budget cuts” and White House tours were canceled to “save $74,000 a week in overtime costs.” Compare that to the $60 to $100 million they estimate this trip is costing.
Leonnig and Nakamura carefully report that these are procedures for all presidents, and let the Obama team say the costs incurred are “beyond our control,” since they are “Secret Service-driven” requirements. Obviously, the reader can deduce that presidents make their own itinerary decisions — safari or no safari? — that the Secret Service has to work around.
The Post noted “The first lady, who toured South Africa and Botswana without the president in 2011, will headline some events on her own during the week. The stops will add to the logistical challenges, because she will require her own security detail and vehicles, the planning document shows.”
The “kingly sums” support some a royal parade of security people and equipment:
Among the 56 vehicles for the trip are parade limousines for the president and first lady, a specialized communications vehicle for secure telephone and video connections, a truck that jams radio frequencies around the presidential motorcade, a fully loaded ambulance that can handle biological or chemical contaminants and a truck for X-ray equipment.
The Secret Service transports such vehicles, along with bulletproof glass, on most trips, including those inside the United States, White House officials said. But with quick stops in three countries, the agency will need three sets of each, because there is not enough time to transfer the equipment, according to the planning document.
One hundred agents are needed as “post-standers” — to man security checkpoints and borders around the president — in each of the first three cities he visits. Sixty-five are needed to meet up with Obama in Dar es Salaam. Before the safari in Mikumi National Park was canceled this week, an additional 35 post-standers had been slated to protect the Obamas and their two daughters there, according to the document.
In addition, 80 to 100 additional agents will be flown in to work rotating shifts, with round-the-clock coverage, for Obama’s and his family’s security details, counterassault teams and logistics coordinators.
The planning document does not provide a total number of how many individual agents will be involved in the trip; some will work in more than one location.
Officials said the Secret Service does not want the president traveling anywhere without a top-rated trauma center nearby. The White House medical unit makes decisions about which foreign hospitals meet its standards when it makes advance visits to the locations for planned trips, officials said.
In much of the developing world, the U.S. Navy provides a “floating hospital” on an aircraft carrier or amphibious ship nearby, officials said.
Regardless of party, taxpayers would appreciate a government that’s more careful and perhaps less extravagant in its travel plans, for presidents and other servants of the public. The first step is journalists who care enough to ask about it. Kudos to The Washington Post.