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Captive of the Secret Service


Paris.--It is late to pile onto Bill Clinton's haircut fiasco, but an important point is being missed. Whose practices were responsible for shutting down half of Los Angeles' air traffic while Mr. Clinton's hair was expensively shorn last Tuesday?

You may be sure that the president himself did not suggest that the airport be closed for his haircut. He will have said that he needed a trim and this seemed a good moment. The standard procedures of the Secret Service are what translate presidential whim into public disorder.

The unasked question is why traffic has to be stopped on neighboring runways while the president of the United States comes and goes -- or waits. Why, for that matter, does the president need to travel to California in a specially equipped super-jumbo, Air Force One, rather than in an executive jet using business airports? Why does ground traffic have to be diverted, roads be closed, public places be turned into fortresses wherever the president travels?

The Secret Service has become a Praetorian Guard whose bureaucratic power and aggrandizement rests upon an enormous and expanding apparatus of personal protection for the president, to which every other public and private interest is aggressively subordinated.

Not only is the voting public pushed aside, blocked in going about its business, delayed in its travels, whenever the president moves from one place to another, but United States senators and Supreme Court justices, and even foreign chiefs of state, are crowded out of the way when the president passes.

The Secret Service is at the heart of the imperial presidency. The institutional interest of this security apparatus is to cut the president off from ordinary life and make him wholly dependent upon its members and structures. Ostensibly its agents are his servants. In fact he is enclosed and isolated by them. Even a president aware of this problem, as Bill Clinton has said he is, cannot avoid the influence of such extravagant and ingratiating concern for his person. It inevitably is corrupting -- and it is peculiarly American.

No other head of state is protected in this way. It is not done for the monarchs of Britain, Scandinavia, Spain or the Netherlands. British Prime Minister John Major is not protected like this,

although the IRA wishes to kill him, nor is Felipe Gonzales of Spain, threatened by Basque terrorists. President Francois Mitterrand of France strolls the streets of Paris, accompanied by friends, visits bookstores, lunches in ordinary restaurants -- discreetly shadowed by two or three bodyguards to be sure, but with none of the aggressive and intrusive apparatus of security which accompanies Mr. Clinton.

The explanation usually given is that no other country has the United States' recent history of assassination attempts. Yet precisely that history demonstrates the irrelevance of the present presidential security system. In the last 30 years the Secret Service has failed to prevent attacks upon three out of six presidents, two of those attacks successful, and all of them easily able to be repeated today against Mr. Clinton despite the security provided for him.

John F. Kennedy was killed by a sniper high in one of the hundreds of buildings the presidential cortege passed on that November day in Dallas in 1963. The two attempts on Gerald Ford's life were made by people in crowds at presidential appearances. The first failed because the woman involved (a Charles Manson follower) did not know that automatic pistols (the one she had, at any rate) have to be charged before they will fire. In the second case a man standing next to the attacker nTC knocked the pistol aside. When Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981 he was walking from the Washington Hilton hotel to his limousine, surrounded by Secret Service agents.

These kinds of attacks cannot be prevented, other than by total isolation of the president from the public. The existing system isolates him without effectively protecting him.

Moreover, one must ask why the president should have protection so elaborate that it is an obstacle to the proper execution of his duties -- and even, as in Los Angeles last week, does him political disservice. During the Cold War there were scenarios of assassination-linked Soviet nuclear threats to the country, never particularly plausible but serviceable arguments for the kind of protection the president was given by the Secret Service.

The Cold War now is over, and if Mr. Clinton were killed tomorrow the republic would be in no danger. We would simply move the vice president into the position. It would be a personal tragedy for Mr. Clinton, his family and friends. But everyone knows the risk of assassination cannot be separated from the American presidency, and Mr. Clinton freely chose to run for that office.

Before Mr. Clinton went to Washington, there was talk of reassigning security responsibilities to some other agency able to bring fresh thinking to the problem and without the Secret Service's institutional investment in existing methods. Certainly an independent review of the pre- sent system and its assumptions and practices is long overdue. The Los Angeles episode ought to teach that to Mr. Clinton.

Worth remembering is that it was not always this way. I recently saw documents on President Franklin Roosevelt's trip to the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, to a city still vibrant with the tensions and conspiracies of the North African landings and the struggle between Free French and Vichy interests there, when heavy fighting was still going on in Tunisia.

The president's party consisted of his personal assistant, Harry Hopkins, a military staff of nine and seven Secret Service agents, two of whom traveled only as far as Miami, where Mr. Roosevelt boarded ship. An advance party of four Secret Service agents had gone ahead to Casablanca. Mr. Clinton today cannot go out for dinner in Washington without more protectors than that.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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