Coming to Dublin . . . All the President's Bodyguards
Caitriona Palmer reports from Washington on the extraordinary security measures being taken for Barack Obama's visit to Ireland
The American visitors tucking into an Irish breakfast at the Dublin hotel appear on the surface like ordinary tourists -- save for the SIG Sauer P229 pistols hidden underneath their jackets.
Their leisurely stroll through the streets of Dublin may look like innocent excursions to see the historical sites of Ireland's capital -- except that they are on reconnaissance missions to identify vulnerable spots along a proposed motorcade route for the most powerful man in the world.
The forthcoming visit to Ireland by US president Barack Obama may still be two months away but the US Secret Service and the White House are already immersed in advance planning for what is expected to be our greatest security operation.
Diplomatic sources confirmed this week that an advance Secret Service team will arrive in Dublin early next month to assess the threat level that Ireland poses to the US commander-in-chief, who is likely to arrive in the country on May 23.
Nothing will be left to chance. Before any itinerary is set, an advance Secret Service team will assess Irish airports to see if their runways can handle the weight of Air Force One and the hulking C-17 transport planes that will carry the armoured vehicles for Obama's motorcade.
In the days before his arrival, the White House will airlift a motorcade of bulletproof limousines, military ambulances, hundreds of heavily armed Secret Service agents, counter sniper and assault experts, sniffer dogs and a medical team in a no-holds effort to protect the president.
The Secret Service's forensics division will likely create virtual three-dimensional models of buildings in Dublin and Moneygall, Co Offaly -- home to the president's ancestors -- so that agents can identify areas where the presidential motorcade may be more vulnerable to attack.
The president is expected to arrive with a 600-strong entourage of political aides, advisers, doctors and chefs. White House PR staffers will airlift in Hollywood-style backdrops and props to ensure the right image is beamed home to TV screens in America.
"When the president travels, the White House travels with him from the cars he drives, the water he drinks, the gasoline he uses, the food he eats," said John Barletta, a former Secret Service agent for Ronald Reagan.
Part of the entourage will be a military aide carrying the "nuclear football", a black leather briefcase armed with a classified nuclear war plan that is always with the president should the US be attacked.
It is unclear yet where the president will stay but the Secret Service will likely assess suitable hotels and residences on their advance trip. Whatever their choice, the entire floor of the hotel or home -- in addition to the floors above and below -- will be fully secured by the White House.
"In the hotel, if the president will stay overnight, we secure the suite and the floor he will stay on and make it as safe as the White House," said a Secret Service agent. "We seal it off. No other guests can be on the floor."
The back-to-back visits of Queen Elizabeth from May 22 to 24 and Barack Obama will cause unprecedented headaches for the Irish Government and defence authorities.
"No country in the world could have the situation where you have the queen of England and the president of the United States visit inside a week," said Taoiseach Enda Kenny recently.
Although a Garda spokesperson contacted by the Weekend Review this week refused to comment on the operational planning for the visits due to security concerns, the State's elite Emergence Response Unit is expected to provide protection. Garda leave is likely to be cancelled throughout both visits. In 2004, the Department of Justice revealed that it took 169,021 garda overtime hours to protect President George W Bush during his 18-hour visit to Ireland in June of that year. More than 2,000 troops, 4,000 gardai, four naval ships and Air Corp planes were deployed at a cost to the Irish State of more than €8m.
On the ground in Ireland, Mr Obama and his wife Michelle will be ferried to appointments in what Secret Service agents refer to as "the beast" -- the 2009 Cadillac limousine that is built to withstand grenade or bazooka attacks. Equipped with 18-inch thick doors and its own supply of oxygen, the car is designed to keep going in the event of an ambush, even when its tyres are shot out.
The president's limo will be followed by another car with an elite unit of Secret Service counter-assault agents equipped with submachine guns. On the ground as the motorcade approaches, "body men" will look for signs of danger among the general public. Anyone who appears too nervous, has their hands in their pockets or looks as though they don't fit in draws immediate attention.
"We look for a guy wearing an overcoat on a warm day," former agent William Albracht said in the recent book by Ronald Kessler, In the President's Secret Service. "A guy not wearing an overcoat on a cold day. A guy with hands in his pockets. A guy carrying a bag. Anybody that is over-enthusiastic, or not enthusiastic. Anybody that stands out, or is constantly looking around.
"You're looking at the eyes, and most importantly the hands. Because where those hands go is the key."