The Cost of Campaign Security

The drama that played out at Hillary Clinton's campaign headquarters in Rochester, N.H., on Friday afternoon ended without bloodshed--as a local man who had taken hostages and claimed to have a bomb surrendered peaceably. While the campaign, and the country, breathed a sigh of relief, the unsettling episode raised troubling questions about the vulnerabilities of candidates and their campaign operations--and the cost, in the unusually large 2008 field, of maintaining security.

Darrin Blackford, a spokesman for the U.S. Secret Service, says that protecting the 2008 presidential contenders is projected to cost a record-setting $107 million--up substantially from the $74 million price tag in 2004, and the $54 million cost in 2000. Thus far, only Clinton (who, as a former First Lady receives protection for life) and Barack Obama (who reportedly requested help in the face of threats) are being watched over by the Secret Service. But that number is likely to rise as nominating season gets underway. Blackford blames the spiraling cost of security on the fact that Campaign 2008 is the first presidential race since 1952 in which no incumbent is running.

Blackford says the Department of Homeland Security decides which candidates are assigned the agents, though he said all major presidential and vice presidential candidates are eligible. The contenders' prominence--along with the amount of money in federal matching funds they pull in--are factors in deciding who gets protection.

Still, there are limits to what the Secret Service can do--and it is difficult to imagine how any candidate could guard against the kind of episode that occurred in New Hampshire. NEWSWEEK spoke with retired Secret Service agent Joseph J. Funk about campaign security. Funk, who now operates U.S. Safety and Security, a private company, provided protection to Obama from February through May of this year before the Secret Service stepped in. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How long were you in the Secret Service?
Joseph J. Funk:
I was in the Secret Service for 21 years. I retired in March of '04 and during my time of permanent protection--which is when you're assigned to a particular person full time--I did four years with the first President Bush and four and a half years with President Clinton … Now that I'm in the private-security field, I was hired to be a security entity for Senator Obama as he was running his campaign last February. I was with him for four and a half months prior to the Secret Service picking up protection full time.

Do candidates need protection now more than ever?
Attacks on political figures have been going on--you could go back to Julius Caesar if you really wanted to. So this is not a new phenomenon. And quite frankly, there were probably more attacks a century ago. We lost three presidents in succession, starting with Lincoln, which was one of the reasons the Secret Service was formed. So, I'm not so sure that there are as many instances. It's just there's better reporting by people like yourself. It's more newsworthy. I think that security, whether it's the Secret Service or local law enforcement, is better. The people out there who have an interest in harming a political figure--they might be getting found out about prior to being able to do anything.

Do you think the fact that we have the most formidable female and African-American candidates we've ever seen makes this campaign more vulnerable? Does it draw out more crazy people?
Anytime you step outside the norms, you're going to attract [trouble]. So whether you're the first African-American, you're the first woman or [Connecticut Sen. Joe] Lieberman, the first Jewish person to run for [the White House]--you're a polarizing figure … That attracts a whole other crowd.

What kinds of funds do the candidates get for security? Before the Secret Service protection stepped in, did Obama pay you out of his own pocket?
The campaign pays. That was one of the decision-makers that the Democrats were looking at. You had Senator Clinton who gets the protection for free. You had Senator Obama, who was paying for it. So to keep things on a level playing field, a push was made to have Senator Obama afforded Secret Service protection, as well. But until the Service steps in the campaign has to pay for it.

Do you know how Obama made the push for protection?
I really don't think he made the push. I think the push was made from the Democratic leadership … I know the Secret Service maintained that [it would be] unusual to pick up a candidate so early. But those decisions are made at a much, much higher level than I would be privy to.

Was it just you with Senator Obama or did others protect him, too?
It depended on the venue. It depended on the crowd … Sometimes for very candid, very controlled crowd situations, it was just me. Other times we had more of a security presence.

Can I ask how much you charge?
That's something I can't go into. [The Los Angeles Times has reported that Obama's campaign paid Funk's firm $380,000.]

You're a former agent. I would imagine it's not cheap to get someone with that kind of experience.
It depends. What some people consider as excessive, other people consider as minimal. And when you're talking about security for a person who's aiming to become president, you have to take everything in stride.

How do you secure a candidate? What are the nuts and bolts? Is it just setting up a perimeter?
It's having the good contacts, a good liaison with local police, providing close-in security so that you are within arm's reach of the protectee should someone decide that they want to do something to either hurt him or embarrass him. It's always good to have local law enforcement there, because nine out of 10 times, they're going to know somebody in the crowd from a prior experience or prior run-in … It's not always somebody who wants to hurt the person. It's a lot of times people [who] want to gain attention. This individual who [was] at the Clinton campaign office, he knew for a fact that Hillary wasn't there today. But he [was] making a statement.

Do you know for a fact he knew she wasn't there?
Well, most people do a certain amount of homework ... Without knowing anything that's going on other than what I see on TV, he wants to make a statement. He's a local fellow. He's from that town. He's using this as the forum to get his message out or to make his statement, whatever it is. Sometimes you find out this really has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with a personal issue, but he's using this because he knows it's media sensitive.

Even after both parties choose their nominees, the Secret Service would not extend protection to various state campaign headquarters, right?
Exactly. You have to imagine how many campaign offices there are nationwide. To secure them with the Secret Service would just be all-consuming. So you rely on the local police. Even there, there's not much you can do full time. If you have an inkling there might be some trouble, you might hire off-duty police to stand at the door. But even that is pushing it a little because you do want to be accessible.

[When you were protecting Obama,] was there an assessment of every venue made? Would stopping by a diner in Iowa be considered less of a charged atmosphere than 10,000 people at a rally?
Yes. Especially if it was off the record and spontaneous, it would be less of a concern for security, because anybody intent on harming him wouldn't have the time to set up. So if you do address a crowd of 10,000 people and it has received publicity, that would be a situation where you call in additional resources.

Did you go everywhere with him?
You give him space. It was based on where we were, the comfort level.

Is protection getting more expensive?
Yes, as technology goes up, your cost goes up. As travel goes up. It's just the economy. If you think about the day-to-day things that go into protection--hotel rooms, travel and so on and so forth--the cost goes up.

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