US President Barrack Obama arrives on July 25, 2015 at the State House in Nairobi. As his trip comes to an end on Sunday, the scope and scale of the security mobilised to protect him remains a spectacle. AFP PHOTO | SIMON MAINA
- And protecting the world’s most powerful man comes with disruptions and a show of might, as has been witnessed in Kenya with road closures, the presence of American military hardware and large numbers of Secret Service agents.
- The exercise-loving president, meanwhile, can also use an on-board gym; the plane’s medical suite can also function as an operating room while its kitchen remains stocked with more than 2,000 meals.
- Nairobi is seven hours ahead of Washington DC and President Obama and his team will have to deal with jet lag while in Kenya, a biological drag occasioned by the time differences as the body tries to adjust.
It takes a whole lot to keep the US President safe at home, and the spectacle rises when he travels abroad — at a cost of millions of dollars. The Washington Post reported that when he last travelled to three African countries two years ago, it could have cost up to $100 million (Sh10 billion) to cover the trip.
And protecting the world’s most powerful man comes with disruptions and a show of might, as has been witnessed in Kenya with road closures, the presence of American military hardware and large numbers of Secret Service agents.
But this is not unique to Kenya.
When, for example, President Obama visited Sweden in September 2013, there was a huge outcry from residents over inconveniences in the traffic flow and disrupted telecommunication.
Then Mayor Sten Nordin’s office reminded the Swedish that much as they had hosted many foreign heads of state, America’s commander-in-chief was an exception.
US SECRET SERVICE
The burden of keeping the American leader safe falls primarily on the shoulders of the US Secret Service, and as Joseph Petro, head of global security for Citigroup, put it to The Guardian, a UK newspaper, the challenges facing the service today are unlike any period before.
“As the first black president, he creates a whole other set of issues for the Secret Service to deal with,” said Mr Petro, a former Secret Service agent.
The President and First Lady Michelle Obama are usually joined on such foreign trips by a team of doctors, several chefs and White House staff members.
The White House medical unit that is always on stand-by in case the President falls ill comprises nurses, surgeons and other medical professionals. It also has a supply of the President’s blood group in case of an emergency.
A senior military officer, carrying codes necessary to launch a nuclear missile attack, always accompanies the President.
Air Force One, the presidential jet, is said to be the most secure aircraft in the world.
Acting as the President’s “office in the sky”, the aircraft’s wings are reported to be armour-plated and capable of resisting a nuclear blast from the ground.
Its fuselage is clad in special shielding that protects vital communication systems and its occupants from radiation, while its electronic defence systems are capable of jamming enemy radar.
The 4,000 sq ft, three-floor Boeing 747 is also fitted with 85 secure satellite telephones, ensuring the President can remain on top of any crisis in a “mobile command centre” in the event of an attack.
The exercise-loving president, meanwhile, can also use an on-board gym; the plane’s medical suite can also function as an operating room while its kitchen remains stocked with more than 2,000 meals.
On stand-by to fly him on short hops is Marine One, his personal VH-3D helicopter.
Marine One — the helicopter carrying a US president — always flies as part of a convoy of identical decoy aircraft from the 19-strong presidential fleet.
The helicopter only lands once they have all reached their destination, a strategy meant to confuse potential attackers.
It is capable of firing specially-designed flares that can divert heat-seeking missiles amid any potential sophisticated terrorist attack.
“When the President travels, the White House travels with him — from the cars he drives, the water he drinks, the gasoline he uses, the food he eats,” Mr John Barletta, a former Secret Service agent who organised overseas visits, told the BBC.
According to the Secret Service website, teams of agents travel in advance and conduct site surveys, which assess needs for manpower, equipment, hospitals and evacuation routes for emergencies.
Before the President arrives, “intelligence information is discussed and emergency options are outlined… Checkpoints are also established and access to the secured area is limited”.
American security agents coordinate with local law enforcement agencies.
“The assistance of the military, federal, state, county and local law enforcement and public safety organisations is a vital part of the entire security operation.
“During protective visits, Secret Service and local law enforcement personnel form a network of support for members of the detail working in close proximity to the protectee,” the specialised agency says.
A Secret Service command post acts as the communication centre for protective activities, monitors emergencies and keeps all participants in contact with one another. After the visit, agents analyse every step of the protective operation, record unusual incidents and suggest improvements.
Ex-Secret Service agent Dan Emmett, who served on presidential detail at various times during the administrations of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, told the Daily Beast in an interview that it takes enormous effort to work in foreign countries.
The author of Within Arm’s Length: The Extraordinary Life and Career of a Special Agent in the United States Secret Service, Mr Emmett said members of a US presidential security detail are carefully chosen, not just highly trained.
“When they come on board, all new agents start at a field office. You don’t start at protection. That comes later, once you’ve proven yourself in terms of work ethic, your ability with firearms, your ability to think on your feet, your ability to actually show up on time — once all those things are factored in, you might get a chance to go to presidential detail.”
The actual protective detail gets to the host country about two weeks in advance but there is yet a team that travels before that to iron out issues about visas, passports, weapons permits, hotels and so on, according to the former agent.
“Because in addition to bringing over the security detail with the President, you’re going to probably have at least 100 agents from all around the country that are going to go as post-standers.
“You have to have a place to store the vehicles because they come over separately on an Air Force transport.”
He noted the staggering logistics overseas. “In order for it to all work perfectly and go smoothly (as, to outsiders, it appears to go), there’s a great deal of preparation and coordination between the Secret Service and the security and intelligence services of the host country.”
It’s also a high-level stress assignment. “I don’t have any real fond memories of foreign trips. A foreign vacation can be a lot of fun, because you plan it; you go where you want. A foreign advance is totally different. You’re going a country that, in a lot of cases, you would not want to visit on your own. And you’re working so much of the time,” he said in the Daily Beast interview.
Apart from the time difference, sometimes eight to nine hours, there is unpredictability in seemingly ordinary things, like eating and sleeping.
“You’re just burning reserve power a lot of the time, just driving on adrenaline and willpower alone, trying to get these things done,” he said.
Nairobi is seven hours ahead of Washington DC and President Obama and his team will have to deal with jet lag while in Kenya, a biological drag occasioned by the time differences as the body tries to adjust.
And it costs millions of dollars and a marshalling of massive resources to get the most powerful man to visit a foreign country.