Wednesday's Security the Cost of Doing Business at Highest Level (1)

The US presidential motorcade (dbking/Wikipedia Commons)
Scott Abel
9/2/2014 1:38 PM
Category: Opinion

Many Estonians won't get to see President Barack Obama outside of ERR's live stream and evening news, but Wednesday's traffic snarls and delays will sure to make the workday a memorable one for some Tallinners.

Estonians are used to seeing their own president and prime minister in public - sometimes even shopping - with little more than a few bodyguards. The prime minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, famously rode his bike in Amsterdam to his meeting with Obama in March.

The costs of Obama's visit for the Estonian government by itself has been estimated at roughly 500,000 euros, mostly on the 1,500 to 1,700 additional police officers on duty during the trip. 

So why do it? Why inconvenience thousands for a visit that will last roughly 12 hours? There are several reasons for the seemingly overwhelming security, beyond the fact that the representative of of the country of 308 million is visiting one with 1.3 million.

Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces

One has to do with the nature of the American presidency. The US, of course, has a tripartite, three-branch system. While theoretically the office of the executive is weaker than the legislative and judicial branches in terms of governmental power, the President is given wide latitude in the area of foreign affairs.

President Obama is the Commander-and-Chief of the US armed forces; the head of an organization that has roughly the number of people in uniform equal to the POPULATION of Estonia. American military action is only initiated unless he orders it, and he has to have the advisers and electronic equipment that allows him to contact any part of the US military, he needs to at all times.

Sometime Wednesday, the nuclear "football," as the briefcase containing America's nuclear launch codes is called, will be carried on the streets of Tallinn. The codes allow Obama to authorize a nuclear attack while away from a fixed command center, especially paramount on a foreign trip. In any wide camera shot of the president, look for an aide, briefcase ready. You want more than a few bodyguards when you have that item wandering the streets.

Couple that with the fact that the President is on foreign soil, and in a time of chaos on the international front - and the war in Ukraine and the rise of the Islamist group ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and tensions in the South China Sea certainly qualifies - the ability of the president to be safe and to be able to depart a location on a moment's notice, and stay in contact with the government, is paramount.

Chaos in the Command Chain

Two events involving the presidency caused considerable chaos for the American government in modern times, although both occurred while the President was physically in the US. In March 1981, President Ronald Reagan was the victim of an assassination attempt. Reagan, who was critically injured, was under anesthesia during his surgery, and did not sign a letter (as he can under the 25th Amendment to the US Constitution) that would temporarily remove him from office.

Without the President actually dead, the Vice President, George H. W. Bush, couldn't take over his responsibilities. There was considerable confusion at the time on who actually was in charge of the military; the first assumption after an assassination attempt is that it might be a prelude to a military attack by a foreign power, and this attempt came during the middle of the Cold War.

It was exacerbated by Alexander Haig, Reagan’s Secretary of State at the time, claiming that while Reagan was unconscious that "I’m in charge here" during a White House press conference, in contradiction to US law, which rattled nerves on a worldwide scale. It became public later that Reagan had become separated from the nuclear launch codes in the nuclear "football," which meant that after the assassination attempt, no one was in charge of America’s nuclear arsenal.

During the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush was in Florida when the first two planes hit the World Trade Center in New York City. He boarded Air Force One, the presidential airplane that will bring Obama to Tallinn Airport, and is supposed to allow the president to use it as a flying command-and-control center. But due to communication problems could not talk to his national security team and Vice President Dick Cheney in the Situation Room of the White House for a period of time.

The White House didn’t know where the plane was going (it went to an airbase in Nebraska where Bush regained a video conference link), and the outage happened during a time when several civilian planes were suspected as hijacked. A shoot-down order of a plane closing on another landmark had to be authorized by the president, if needed. There were contradictory statements following the episode on whether a shoot-down order was ever given, and who might have given it.

Georgia on their Mind

When President Bush - the first sitting president to visit Estonia – made a visit in November 2006, he did not make a public address to the Estonian people (Obama’s speech on Wednesday afternoon will be given in the Nordea Concert Hall under tight security and in front of an audience made up by those selected by the US Embassy).

Most presidents like to "work the crowd" on foreign visits, and Bush was no different, but an episode on a foreign trip to the Republic of Georgia a year earlier was still heavily on their minds of the administration and the US Secret Service, the presidents’ special praetorian guard.

In May 2005, a man named Vladimir Arutyunian threw a hand grenade at Bush and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili while they were addressing a large crowd in Tbilisi. When Bush began speaking, Arutyunian threw the grenade, which landed near Saakashvilli and the two first ladies. However, the grenade was wrapped with a handkerchief which prevented the firing pin from working, and the grenade did not explode.

After an intensive manhunt involving both the American FBI and the Georgian security services, Arutyunian was apprehended, but not before he shot and killed the head of the Georgian Interior Ministry’s counterintelligence department. A variety of explosives and chemical-making equipment was found in Arutyunian flat, and he is now serving a life sentence.

When Bush visited Estonia, a member of Bush’s advance team, when asked about the lack of a public speech, brought up the incident in Georgia as the primary reason.

"The Beast"

President Obama and his entourage normally travel in a group of 20 to 30 vehicles, which will include his staff, security, members of the traveling press corps, and VIPs.

The major members travel in limousines that are essentially tanks on wheels. They are up-armored to withstand machine gun fire, a hit from a rocket-propelled grenade, or the blast of an improvised explosive. They also include other classified defensive countermeasures. At least two have arrived in Tallinn and have driven various routes through Old Town this weekend, in an attempt to prevent episodes like this.

In case of an emergency, escape routes will have been planned beforehand, and members of the US Secret Service, who have been working for weeks on preparations with the ministries of Interior and Defense and local law enforcement, will be present at all times. Sharpshooters will be posted on buildings. So will radar that can spot incoming flying threats, along with groups equipped with Stinger anti-aircraft missiles for those who try to defeat the no-fly zone that will be instituted Wednesday around Tallinn.

So if you are stopped short of your destination Wednesday by the congested traffic, the road blockages between the airport, Swissotel, Kadriorg and Stenbock House, you can marvel at all the moving parts in play that are trying to turn Obama’s bi- and multilateral meetings and speech into something memorable in the history of Estonia, instead of something that would be memorable for much different reasons.

It's the cost the country bears to be a player at the highest level.

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