Analysis 01-20-2017


Reviewing Presidential Security And Threats

Since the US became a superpower, the President has become a high risk target for assassination.  However the threat to President Trump is even greater than it has been for previous presidents.

Describing the situation to “Washington Top News,” Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy acknowledged that the threat level at this inauguration is “different” from previous ones saying that, after a contentious 2016 campaign cycle, people “are willing to do things they may not have been willing to do in the past.”

He cited several episodes that took place during the campaign, “where people jumped over those bike racks or security zones into our buffer. In the past, it was very rare for somebody to do that. Today, in this past campaign, people were willing to do it.”

In addition to D.C. being a perpetual high-profile target for terrorist attacks, Clancy notes that, as confirmed by the latest Project Veritas video, the bigger threat is likely coming from anarchist groups who will stop at nothing to disrupt the inauguration ceremonies in some way.

“We know that this (Washington region) is a high-profile [terror] target. It’s been attacked in the past, historically,” said Paul Abbate, the FBI’s executive assistant director for the Criminal, Cyber, Response and Services Branch.

“The bigger threat is probably coming from anti-government/anarchistgroups who are likely to try and disrupt the inauguration, and may engage in violence to do so,” said Mike Maness, director of Trapwire.

Other FBI officials have confirmed that Washington is mentioned on a daily basis as a potential target in intercepted terrorist chatter and communications. “We, from the FBI standpoint, are ready to counter terrorist attacks and are working with our partners in building out the intelligence picture,” Abbate said.

U.S. presidents always face an array of threats.  Four U.S. presidents have been assassinated: Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy.  Assassination attempts have frequently occurred – the most visible was the attempt on Reagan’s life in 1981, with every president since Richard Nixon having been targeted for assassination, with some threats more credible than others.

Needless to say, the level of protection has grown dramatically.  President Eisenhower would travel in an open car so the crowds could see him.  There was no security perimeter around him.

That level of presidential openness changed after the JFK assassination in 1963.  It tightened up even more after the Reagan assassination attempt.  Today the president is surrounded by a security perimeter, whether at the White House or on the move.  Any city the president goes to undergo a “lockdown” as the Secret Service creates a layer of perimeters that make it difficult for anyone armed or known as a potential threat to get within reach of the president.

This security perimeter is buttressed with an active intelligence group that looks at potential threats even before they can pose a problem.  Obviously, the Secret Service is much more adept at countering group conspiracies than lone wolf actors.  Lone wolves are very, very difficult to uncover, especially if they remain isolated and tell no one of their plans.  Groups are much easier to track, as their movements are more noticeable and their operational security weaker, as all members must remain silent to keep the plot clandestine. The money trail is also a dead giveaway for groups, as outside organizations will often fund their operations, helping them buy equipment and supplies in preparation for an attack.

It would be very difficult for even a small group to operate below the radar of not just the Secret Service but also the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the FBI, the CIA and the National Security Agency, all of which gather intelligence to protect the president.

The most worrisome threat is the “lone wolf” assassination attempt – the attack by one person, who is willing to die in the attempt.  The lone wolf’s ability to act alone, keeping his intentions, activities and whereabouts to himself, makes it very difficult for law enforcement agencies to identify a threat before it is too late. But the lone wolf also must be very smart and have some access to resources such as weapons and vehicles.

The other threat is having an outside organization like a foreign power, recruit a lone wolf.  Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald attempted to obtain Cuban and Soviet visas in Mexico City before he assassinated JFK.

Threats to President Trump

The change in president also means a change in the threat.  While Obama may have been a target to right-wing white supremacists, the threat to Trump from that group is probably much lower.  Yet, the threat from groups like ISIS probably remains the same.

The protests organized in Washington this week indicate that there are some radical left wing anarchist groups that probably pose a threat to Trump.  Although these groups are more interested in hampering the inauguration rather than being a specific threat to Trump, no doubt American intelligence agencies are targeting them as potential threats.

Another problem for protecting Trump is his home in Trump Tower in New York City.  Trump intends to keep that as his residence and his son and wife intend to remain there on weekdays – at least until the end of the school year.

The Secret Service prefers a large security perimeter around the president, which they can’t get with Trump Tower.  Not only is it in the heart of New York City, there are retail stores in the vicinity and many occupants of Trump Tower.  Providing the level of protection that the Secret Service prefers will be difficult.

There is also the problem of extracting Trump from Trump Tower in case of an emergency.  The nearest helipad to Trump Tower is 2.5 miles away – a formidable distance in NYC traffic.  In fact, residents of NYC have already seen a military exercise take place over the city where military aircraft practiced an emergency extraction of the president.

Despite all the planning and security, threats still remain.  This was highlighted this week when it was reported that close Trump political confidant Roger Stone barely survived an attempt to poison him.  Stone reported that he had been very sick in December and that blood tests, which were forwarded to the Center for Disease Control, indicated that he had been poisoned with polonium – a rare radioactive element that has been used by national intelligence agencies to poison targets.  It was alleged that it was used to poison former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko.

Critics, however, claim that this is a story put out to push his upcoming book, “Making of the President 2016.”

However, if true, this indicates that opposition to Trump could come from very powerful corners – much as many think that JFK was actually assassinated by groups closely tied to US intelligence and the CIA.

Clearly, Trump and the heads of the intelligence community have been at loggerheads in the past few weeks, with serious charges flying back and forth between them.  Could they pose a threat since they have better access to the president than outsiders?

While a possibility, it certainly isn’t a probability.  Much of the rancor between Trump and the intelligence community will dissipate from headlines in the coming weeks as his team takes over and many of the opposition voices are forced out.  There will be continued opposition, but at much lower, and less effective, levels.

It’s also important to remember that the intelligence community members still remain outside of the Secret Service security bubble.  Only a few high level intelligence personnel have regular access to the president.  In addition, the Secret Service, which is tasked with protecting the president takes it responsibility seriously and is very unlikely to sully its reputation as the presidential protector by allowing a threat by anyone to get near the president.

Implications of a Presidential Assassination

Given the protection of the president, assassination is very unlikely.  However, as the events of 9-11 showed the vulnerability of the president to a terrorist tool like a passenger aircraft, the threat must be taken seriously and preparations have been taken to insure the continuity of government.

The line of succession for president is Vice President, Speaker of the House, President Pro Tem of the Senate, and Secretary of State.  The other cabinet members are also in the line of succession based on the seniority of their cabinet position.

As was seen in the JFK assassination, power moves quickly and smoothly to the Vice President.  Although the inauguration is usually a major event, in an emergency, the oath of office can be made in front of any judge or a notary public.

The Vice President, along with the Speaker of the House and others are in constant communications and has the tools to quickly assume office in a national emergency.

From an international policy point of view, there should be little problem.  The whole presidential line of succession is Republican (unlike Obama’s which had Republicans in the 2nd and 3rd place), which means that foreign policy continuity will remain.

The biggest problem might be the social unrest if a specific group is found to be complicit with the assassination.  An attack by a Black Lives Matter member might spark racial unrest across the country.  Conversely, an attack by ISIS on Trump might cause religious unrest that would threaten Muslim communities.

Unrest, however, remains a threat in the US.  California is looking at a referendum to secede from the US in the 2018-2019 timeframe and many cities are refusing to obey US laws on immigration while Trump is president.  Obama supporters, who once favored gun control, are now buying firearms because they fear the Trump Administration.  Police are being ambushed across the US and Blacks are still being killed by police.

And, despite the economic message from Trump, the US economy is still fragile.  Debt is at high levels and the savings and pensions of many are threatened.  In addition, there is a growing divide between the rich and the average American.  History shows us that it is economic problems and inequality that spur unrest and revolution, but sometimes an assassination of important figure may provide the trigger.