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Campaign puts new strain on Secret Service

The U.S. Secret Service expects to borrow more than 2,000 immigration officers and federal airport screeners next year to help guard an ever-expanding field of presidential candidates, while shifting 250 of its own agents from investigations to security details.
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The U.S. Secret Service expects to borrow more than 2,000 immigration officers and federal airport screeners next year to help guard an ever-expanding field of presidential candidates, while shifting 250 of its own agents from investigations to security details.

Burdened by the White House's wartime security needs, the persistent threat of terrorism and a field of at least 20 presidential contenders, the Secret Service was showing signs of strain even before the Department of Homeland Security ordered protection for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) as of May 3, the earliest a candidate has ever been assigned protection in an election season.

Its $110 million-plus budget for campaign protection -- two-thirds more than the record $65 million it spent for the 2004 election -- was prepared when the service did not expect to be guarding Obama or anyone else until January. The agency has already been forced to scale back its efforts to battle counterfeiting and cybercrime.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Bush administration has doubled the number of officials granted Secret Service protection, from 26 to 54, including top White House aides such as the chief of staff and national and homeland security advisers.

As recently as the beginning of Bill Clinton's administration in 1993, no White House aides had such security details, although coverage had been extended before and was given later to national security advisers Brent Scowcroft, Anthony Lake and Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, said former Clinton and Bush counterterrorism adviser Richard A. Clarke.

And while the 2008 campaign gets going, the service is also gearing up for January 2009, when President Bush is set to leave office; officials are mindful of the 1993 assassination effort by Iraq against his father, former president George H.W. Bush. The service has begun training agents to fill 103 full-time slots as to be part of the current president's retirement detail.

"You've just ticked off what you might say are unprecedented challenges," said David G. Carpenter, formerly the head of Clinton's Secret Service detail and assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security and now vice president of global security for PepsiCo.

The stresses come as the agency's duties have grown faster than its funding.

Founded as part of the Treasury Department in 1865 to combat counterfeiting and tapped in 1901 as guardian of presidents, the service is best known for protecting individuals. By law, the agency guards presidents, vice presidents, candidates, their families and visiting heads of state. The president can also extend protection by executive memorandum.

More homeland security jobs
But the service has taken on added homeland security jobs in recent years, such as screening White House mail and coordinating security at national events such as presidential conventions and Super Bowls. And while its budget has grown 50 percent since 2001, the number of agents, uniformed officers and support staff has increased by about 20 percent, to 6,500.

"The protection work of the Secret Service has grown in magnitude and complexity since 9/11. . . . The number of protectees under your responsibility has doubled since 2002. At the same time, the global war on terror is driving up the intensity of your protective operations," Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) told Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan at a March hearing on his $1.4 billion 2008 budget proposal. "Your already stretched personnel and resources are going to be stretched even further."

Saddled with new duties, the agency is cutting back its traditional work on financial fraud and cybercrime.

Counterfeit money in circulation grew 20 percent between 2003 and 2006, from $58 to $81 per million dollars, said Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security. Losses prevented by Secret Service investigations dropped 40 percent in 2006, from $556 million to $316 million.

While its goal is to spend 65 percent of its resources on investigations -- 50 percent in presidential election years -- the service is cutting investigators' budgets and is on track to flip its usual ratio, spending nearly two-thirds on protective duties.

"Is it a systemic problem within the organization that there has been a drop-off regardless of the campaign? I would say it is," Sullivan told Price's panel. "We flat out need more people."

The Secret Service, mindful of offending the White House or Congress, said in a statement that it "declines to participate with this story."

The statement said plans are in place and the service's personnel are prepared, adding, "We are currently working with the Department of Homeland Security in order to address campaign funding issues."

But members of Congress in both parties are throwing jabs.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, called on Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to "provide the necessary resources," saying, "The stability of our nation and institutions of our democracy must be protected."

"The Secret Service is being stretched thinner with these added requirements," Rogers said. "It can't be done on the cheap."

The exceptionally early start of the 2008 race and its unusually large field have increased the pressure, forcing the Secret Service to scramble to keep up with the longest and costliest U.S. presidential campaign ever.

High costs
Candidate protection is expensive. Flight, lodging and per diem expenses are sizable, exceeding the $100 million that the Secret Service normally spends on travel per year. Security details require three shifts of agents that rotate every three weeks, bomb-sniffing dogs, sophisticated communications equipment, hundreds of vehicles, and even, at times, specialized gear such as detection and jamming devices.

Chertoff's recent decision to authorize protection for Obama was also unexpected. The Secret Service initially estimated that it would need to staff 739 "candidate protection days" for 2008, on the low end of the range of 300 to 2,000 days it has staffed for campaigns over the past 40 years.

But with coverage of Obama starting 18 months before Election Day, his campaign alone could consume 540 days, at a rate of about $44,360 a day.

On the other hand, with more than 25 states proposing or holding caucuses or primaries by Feb. 5, the vast field could be cleared early, Price noted. Also, as a former first lady, Democratic candidate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) already has a protective detail.

The reason for the Obama order is unclear. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who is backing Obama, expressed concern that the candidate is drawing large crowds that could impede his movement in an emergency, while Obama aides were concerned about threatening letters and Internet postings seeming to target the senator because of his race, congressional sources said, although there was no specific threat.

In interviews, Obama has expressed ambivalence about the change and played down any racial aspect.

"I'm not an entourage guy," Obama told ABC News, saying that until recently he helped his wife shop for groceries. But he added: "If I don't win it's not going to be because of my race. It's going to be because I didn't project a vision of leadership that gave people confidence."

While presidential candidates often object to Secret Service protection as intrusive and a barrier to voters, the agency's presence can convey legitimacy to fledgling campaigns and lend experience, organization and speed to their travel operations.

Former North Carolina senator John Edwards, who received a Secret Service detail in 2004 as the Democratic vice presidential candidate, has said he has no immediate plans to request protection this time. He told CNN that he would rather, "as long as possible, have the freedom to be able to be with people."

Spokesmen for the Republican front-runners, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, said the campaigns have neither asked for nor received Secret Service protection.

Staff writers Perry Bacon Jr. and Mary Beth Sheridan and political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.