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Inside Politics

Elections already putting strain on Secret Service

Story Highlights

• The Secret Service anticipates heavy workload trying to protect '08 candidates
• Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama already under Secret Service protection
• The agency is reassigning 250 agents from investigations to protection
• Border Patrol, Transportation Security Agency helping to protect candidates
By John King
CNN Chief National Correspondent
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This is a part one of a two-part series. Tomorrow, the Secret Service gives CNN an exclusive, inside look at the newest threats facing the agency and the latest high-tech tools being used in the fight against global terrorism.

BELTSVILLE, Maryland (CNN) -- The SUV pulls up to the building entrance and is immediately surrounded by U.S. Secret Service agents. It is an arrival without incident. The presidential candidate is escorted inside for the next event and heads down a hallway in what could be any hotel in any town in America.

Off to the right, a man makes his way toward a stairwell, reaches into a pocket and pulls out a handgun, and heads toward the hallway where the candidate is standing.

"Sir, drop the gun," a member of the Secret Service detail says forcefully.

The man continues to approach, lifting the handgun.

In a blur, there is a flurry of gunfire, and the would-be assassin is struck repeatedly.

"We got one down," yells another government agent.

This is training -- one of a number of Secret Service simulations of scenarios that agents may see while guarding a president or presidential candidate.

Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-New York, and Barack Obama, D-Illinois, already are under Secret Service protection, and the agency anticipates an unprecedented workload given the large Democratic and Republican fields. (Clinton, because she is a former first lady, had protection before her candidacy.)

Not all of the candidates will end up with government protection, but the Secret Service expects that several more will ask for it later this year or early next year.

Service reassigns 250 agents to protect candidates

To accommodate these needs, the service will need to reassign 250 agents from investigations to protection. By starting the process so early and with so many candidates, the cost is expected to far exceed -- potentially double -- what the service spent on the 2004 election cycle.

Training so many agents so quickly is a daunting challenge. Agents are being brought in from around the country for "refresher training," and because of the workload, the Secret Service says it will borrow help from other federal law enforcement agencies to supplement its work.

Transportation Security Administration screeners, for example, will be tapped to run magnetometers and other screening devices at campaign events. The Border Patrol and other agencies also are likely to get support roles as the workload increases. In all, the service anticipates borrowing about 200 immigration officers and airport screeners to help protect White House hopefuls.

Don Coyer, a deputy assistant director of the Secret Service who oversees training and manpower issues, accompanied CNN recently on an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the training under way at the agency's main facility in suburban Washington.

Obama picked up coverage in early May, months earlier than expected, because of the huge crowds he attracts and because of calls and letters some of his supporters found worrisome.

But Coyer played down the idea that it is different or more difficult to protect a black candidate.

"For us, the Secret Service, it doesn't really change anything that we do," Coyer told CNN. "We deal on the dark side of these every day. I mean hate mail, threats are second nature."

But tracking such threats is a priority. The Secret Service does not have its own intelligence gathering wing but collects data from state and local police, the FBI, from the campaigns themselves, and -- in cases of international travel -- from the CIA and foreign governments.

"We are constantly combing through and looking through other people's information," retired 34-year Secret Service veteran Terry Samway told CNN. "What really changed over my career is the amount of intelligence that is gathered not only from the federal agencies and the state but to the local. ... Technology has helped us greatly."

From motorcades to rope-lines

Obama's security detail was trained and put together on an accelerated schedule. Now, additional teams are undergoing training, which involves hours running through varied simulations of campaign-style events -- ranging from street walks and motorcade rides to hotel speeches and mingling with supporters over rope-lines.

The scenarios are mixed up repeatedly -- sometimes a movement goes off without incident, other times there is a gun attack, or a knife pulled, or maybe just an overzealous supporter who hugs too tightly, or who suddenly reaches for a camera or a cell phone. The idea is to test the response -- and judgment -- of the agents who in a split second have to decide if an action is hostile, and whether to use force, even deadly force, in their response.

Walking along a mock tarmac with a replica of Marine One and Air Force One, the special agent in charge of the training center, Renee Triplett, told CNN the training can humble even 20-year Secret Service veterans.

"This is the area where it is OK to make mistakes," Triplett said of the training center. "We would like to not see that, but it is better to make them here where we can correct you, refocus you, on what we want to see done, how we want to see you react."

It is routine for agents to ask people in event crowds to show their hands -- and on our visit we were shown several weapons that make this such a paramount concern: blades concealed in umbrella handles and in a pendant, and a metal band that looks like a ring, but on the flip-side -- in the palm -- a razor that could be used to slash a candidate's throat if the assailant was close enough.

The rope-line training begins in the "Mat Room," a padded exercise room where I was allowed to stand in as the "protectee" to get a feel for the lead agent's job. When a man suddenly pulled a knife from his pocket and lunged forward, the lead agent grasped my waist, yanked and spun me around, and pushed me away from the rope-line.

Those skills are later tested in more realistic settings like street scenes and mock hotel lobbies and ballrooms.

Agents also test their judgment in a high-tech video simulator using a laser gun, not unlike a video game. As different scenarios play out on screen, the agents must decide whether to open fire. Sometimes the commotion is harmless, other times it is a gun or knife attack on the protectee. As I learned in the simulator, in some cases a pause can prove fatal, but in others it is necessary because the agent might not have a clear shot given the panic in the crowd.

The ultimate test

Gunfire is perhaps the ultimate test.

Instinct is to take cover, but a Secret Service agent is trained to turn toward the gunfire and "cover" their protectee -- even taking a bullet if necessary.

"You as a shield -- that's not natural," Coyer told us in a walk along a street set called "Hogan's Alley," where some of the training takes place. "Again, it's drill, drill, drill.... It's repetition, repetition, repetition.... You [must] drum it into somebody."


Sen. Barack Obama and his family were placed under Secret Service protection earlier this year.



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