When President Obama makes his first extended trip to sub-Saharan Africa this month, the federal agencies charged with keeping him safe won’t be taking any chances.
Hundreds of U.S. Secret Service agents will be dispatched to secure facilities in Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania. A Navy aircraft carrier or amphibious ship, with a fully staffed medical trauma center, will be stationed offshore in case of an emergency.
Military cargo planes will airlift in 56 support vehicles, including 14 limousines and three trucks loaded with sheets of bulletproof glass to cover the windows of the hotels where the first family will stay. Fighter jets will fly in shifts, giving 24-hour coverage over the president’s airspace, so they can intervene quickly if an errant plane gets too close.
The elaborate security provisions — which will cost the government tens of millions of dollars — are outlined in a confidential internal planning document obtained by The Washington Post. While the preparations appear to be in line with similar travels in the past, the document offers an unusual glimpse into the colossal efforts to protect the U.S. commander-in-chief on trips abroad.
Any journey by the president, such as one scheduled next week for Northern Ireland and Germany, is an immense and costly logistical challenge. But the trip to Africa is complicated by a confluence of factors that could make it one of the most expensive of Obama’s tenure, according to people familiar with the planning.
The first family is making back-to-back stops from June 26 to July 3 in three countries where U.S. officials are providing nearly all the resources, rather than depending heavily on local police forces, military authorities or hospitals for assistance.
The president and first lady had also planned to take a Tanzanian safari as part of the trip, which would have required the president’s special counterassault team to carry sniper rifles with high-caliber rounds that could neutralize cheetahs, lions or other animals if they became a threat, according to the planning document.
But officials said Thursday that the safari had been canceled in favor of a trip to Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, where Nelson Mandela was held as a political prisoner.
When The Post first asked White House officials about the safari last week, they said no final decision had been made. A White House official said Thursday that the cancellation was not related to The Post’s inquiries.
“We do not have a limitless supply of assets to support presidential missions, and we prioritized a visit to Robben Island over a two-hour safari in Tanzania,” said spokesman Josh Earnest. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t do both.”
Internal administration documents circulated in April show that the Obama family was scheduled to go to both Robben Island and the safari park, according to a person familiar with the plans.
Former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush also made trips to multiple African nations involving similarly laborious preparations. Bush went in 2003 and 2008, bringing his wife on both occasions. Bush’s two daughters went along on the first trip, which included a safari at a game preserve on the Botswana-South Africa border.
“Even in the most developed places of Western Europe, the level of support you need for mass movements by the president is really extraordinary,” said Steve Atkiss, who coordinated travel as special assistant for operations to Bush. “As you go farther afield, to less-developed places, certainly it’s more of a logistical challenge.”
White House and Secret Service officials declined to discuss the details of the security operations, and administration aides cautioned that the president’s itinerary is not finalized.
Obama’s overseas travels come as government agencies, including the Secret Service, are wrestling with mandatory, across-the-board spending cuts. The service has had to slice $84 million from its budget this year, and this spring the agency canceled public White House tours to save $74,000 a week in overtime costs.
Many details about foreign presidential trips are classified for national security reasons, and there is little public information about overall costs. A report from the Government Accountability Office found that Clinton’s 1998 trip to six African nations cost the U.S. government at least $42.7 million. Most of that was incurred by the military, which made 98 airlift missions to transport personnel and vehicles, and set up temporary medical evacuation units in five countries.
That figure did not include costs borne by the Secret Service, which were considered classified.