As President Obama is prepared to make a historic visit to sub-Saharan Africa, the first of his presidency, concerns about the trip's monumental expense and logistics have begun to overshadow its importance.
According to classified documents obtained this week by The Washington Post, the week-long trip, scheduled from June 26 to July 3, will involve hundreds of U.S. Secret Service agents, a Naval aircraft carrier with a fully-staffed medical trauma center stationed offshore, 24-hour continual air coverage by fighter jets flying in shifts, and 56 support vehicles, including 14 limousines for the president and first lady, a specialized communications vehicle for secure telephone and video communications, a truck to jam radio frequencies around the president’s motorcade, an ambulance equipped to handle biological and chemical contaminants, a truck with x-ray equipment, and three trucks loaded with sheets of bulletproof glass to cover the president’s hotel windows. The vehicles will be airlifted by at least a dozen military cargo planes. Obama will be spending five nights on the continent, in Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania.
The estimated cost to the U.S. government: $60 to $100 million.
“Even in the most developed places of Western Europe, the level of support you need for mass movements by the president is really extraordinary,” explains Steve Atkiss, who served as a special assistant for operations to George W. Bush. The U.S. government typically relies on first-rate hospital and police support on trips to developed nations, but supplies more of its own resources while traveling through lesser-developed parts of the world.
“As you go farther afield, to less-developed places, certainly it’s more of a logistical challenge.”
Early plans for a safari, which would have required high-caliber ammunition to neutralize lions or cheetahs should they become dangerous, have been cancelled.
The trip is an important one for Obama, his first substantial visit to sub-Saharan Africa since becoming president. He will be meeting with local heads of state as part of a plan to build crucial partnerships with developing democracies, and is expected to devote time to other issues on the continent, such as HIV/AIDS. The first lady, who will be accompanying the president and is expected to headline several events herself (requiring extra security detail), made an earlier to Africa trip with her daughters in 2011.
“We always provide the appropriate level of protection to create a secure environment,” said Ed Donovan, a spokesman for the Secret Service. President Bush made trips to the continent in 2003 and 2008, bringing his wife on both occasions. President Clinton’s 1998 trip to six African nations cost an estimated $42.7 million, and required 98 airlift missions.
These reports are oddly timed, as the White House only recently announced that it was indefinitely suspending public tours in compliance with mandatory across-the-board spending cuts mandated by the sequester. The tours, which brought in about 11,000 visitors each week, required 37 additional U.S. Secret Service agents to work overtime and cost $74,000 per week. The Secret Service, which needs to trim its budget by $85 million this year, is looking for ways to do so without laying off agents.
This prompted an embarrassing and juvenile scramble for political points when House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) sent a letter to his constituents, noting: “While I’m disappointed the White House has chosen to comply with sequestrations by cutting public tours, I’m pleased to assure you that public tours of the United States Capitol will continue.”
For fear of that happening again, it’s important to remember that though details such as these are rare — they are usually kept classified for security reasons, and were reportedly leaked to the Post by an anonymous official concerned about costs — they are neither new, political, nor partisan. The protection of the American presidency is important, as are nation-building trips to developing countries.
“This is what you need to support the American presidency,” Atkiss explains, “regardless of who the president is.”