When President Barack Obama makes his first extended trip to sub-Saharan Africa starting Wednesday, 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 extraordinary 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 last week to 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 Wednesday to July 3 in three countries where U.S. officials are providing nearly all the resources, rather than depending more heavily on local police forces, military authorities or hospitals for assistance.
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 earlier 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 was 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.
Obama's trip could cost the federal government $60 million to $100 million based on the costs of similar African trips in recent years, according to one person familiar with the journey, who was not authorized to speak to the Washington Post for attribution. The Secret Service planning document, which was provided to the Post by a person who is concerned about the amount of resources necessary for the trip, does not specify costs.
"The infrastructure that accompanies the president's travels is beyond our control," said Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. "The security requirements are not White House-driven, they are Secret Service-driven. … Part of this is the nature of making sure we travel to emerging areas in Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa. They are not as designed to facilitate the footprint of the United States president."
But current and former government security officials involved in presidential trips said White House staff also help determine what's required, because they plan the visits and parameters. The Secret Service and military respond to that itinerary by providing what their agencies consider the required security.
White House officials said the trip was long overdue, marking Obama's first visit as president to sub-Saharan Africa aside from a 22-hour stopover in Ghana in 2009. The emerging democracies on the itinerary are crucial partners in regional security conflicts, Rhodes said.
Obama will hold bilateral meetings with each country's leader and seek to forge stronger economic ties at a time when China is investing heavily in Africa. He also will highlight global health programs, including HIV/AIDS prevention.