Fake-signer incident highlights risks of protecting US presidents abroad

US Secret Service relies on services abroad doing what they say they'll do

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 December, 2013, 11:56pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 December, 2013, 11:56pm

The US Secret Service team that landed in Johannesburg to prepare for President Barack Obama's visit after the death of Nelson Mandela thought it knew what to expect.

The same agents had just been to the city during Obama's trip there in late June. In a briefing, South African officials pledged to secure FNB Stadium - the site of Mandela's memorial service - and conduct all necessary background checks, according to a US official familiar with the planning.

But once Obama arrived for a whirlwind 13-hour visit on December 10, it became clear that South African security would not live up to the promises, the official said. Obama's motorcade proceeded on highways with heavy traffic, many people attending the service did not go through metal detectors and large crowds gathered near the stage full of dignitaries, with few South African security officers nearby.

The problems culminated with revelations that the sign-language interpreter employed for the memorial - who stood within arm's length of Obama and other speakers - had allegedly faked his credentials, suffered from schizophrenia and been accused of murder.

"They said they would do A, B, C and D but it was clear the threshold was not met," said the US official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "The South African government made the plans. They needed to execute them."

Former agents and government officials said the events in Johannesburg illustrate the challenges and unpredictability of protecting the US president on foreign soil, where American officials must rely heavily on local governments and negotiations over security protocols are often fraught with sensitive diplomatic considerations.

There is no evidence that Obama was threatened by the close proximity of Thamsanqa Jantjie, who did not use recognisable sign language during the speeches and later said he was hallucinating. Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan emphasised that US agents were close to Obama at all times and that the president was never in jeopardy.

Dave Wilkinson, a former Secret Service agent in the presidential protection division who retired in 2005 and now is president of the Atlanta Police Foundation, said that "one of the most harrowing things" about foreign visits is their unpredictability.

"You can talk and talk and talk and commit and confirm every bit of the security procedures, but until game day you don't know what's going to roll out," Wilkinson said.

Consider a speech by then-president George W. Bush's in Tbilisi, Georgia, in the spring of 2005. A crowd estimated between 150,000 and 250,000 people surged into Freedom Square, overwhelming the Secret Service's metal detectors. Presidential aides considered cancelling the event.

Everything seemed to go fine until after the speech, when Georgian authorities discovered a live hand grenade within 30 metres of the stage. They later determined the device had been thrown at the president but failed to detonate.