April 22, 2012

The President, the Secret Service and me....

The author in front of Air Force One in Damascus

The recent scandal involving members of the U.S. Secret Service in Colombia brings back memories of the only dealings I have ever had with the agency charged with the protection of the President. In late 1994, I was the Air Attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, Syria. Part of the training for all air attachés is how to handle a presidential visit - the Air Attaché is responsible for the arrangements for the presidential aircraft, in most cases a U.S. Air Force VC-25, a modified ultra-VIP version of the Boeing 747.

I was excused from this particular training because, as the officer in charge of the presidential visit training asked, "What are the chances that a U.S. president is going to visit Syria?" In his defense, I had to agree with him. I was of the opinion that no sitting American president would conduct a visit to Syria thus lending legitimacy to a country closely allied with Iran and Lebanese Hizballah, and who certainly had U.S. blood on its hands.

I was wrong.

In mid-October 1994, the embassy received a cable from State Department that President Bill Clinton was planning to make a visit to Damascus to meet with Syrian President Hafiz al-Asad. The was going to be a burden for the small embassy staff, especially as the Secret Service, White House Communications Agency and the Presidential Pilot's Office (PPO), the Air Force pilots who fly Air Force One* all sent large advance teams to make security, communications and transportation arrangements for the visit.

My first introduction to the visit was surprisingly not the PPO as I had assumed - that would come later. Almost immediately after the classified notification of the impending announcement of the visit, I received a message from U.S. Transportation Command headquarters at Scott AFB, Illinois, requesting me (as Air Attaché) to secure diplomatic flight clearances for four C-5A Galaxy transport aircraft carrying hundreds of tons of cargo (mostly communications gear), a fleet of Presidential vehicles and Secret Service SUVs, and a U.S. Marine Corps VH-60N White Hawk presidential helicopter (plus a squad of Marines to man it). There were also requests for clearances for a variety of smaller aircraft (C-130 tactical transports and Gulfstream IV business jets).

Thankfully the message also included a fund cite to pay for all the cargo handling - aircraft unloaders, trucks and storage hangars. I waited as the first two aircraft were supposed to land. They did not show up. I had to drive back to the embassy and call Scott AFB.

Once back in my office, I spoke to a colonel at Scott who imperiously informed me that if I had bothered to check the Air Mobility Command online database (I think he called it the "am-cod"), I would have known that the aircraft had been delayed at the President's last stop and that I would have rescheduled the trucks awaiting the two transports. Silly me. I explained, as politely as I could, that I was at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, Syria - we barely had working telephones and on good days maybe a fax machine, let alone any kind of online access. To my pleasant surprise, he laughed and said he understood and committed to sending actual message traffic in the future.

My next dealings were with two Secret Service officers and two Air Force majors from the PPO. Overall, these four individuals were highly arrogant and as far as I was concerned, barely competent to deal with their Syrian counterparts at the Damascus international airport. Their constant use of the phrase "leader of the free world" soon began to wear thin. Finally, I reminded them that although they lived in Washington, I, on the other hand, lived in Syria, and at last check, Syria was not a part of "the free world."

The visit happened - it was uneventful, and as far as our foreign policy objectives go, a failure. See an article I wrote years ago about the visit, The Arrogance of Power - A Presidential Visit.

After the President departed, I spent days reversing the previous process, this time dispatching the same aircraft to the next destination. I had to deal with Syrianair (the national airline) to cover the enormous bills we had run up at the airport. While I was settling the accounts, I was summoned by the chief of airport security, a Syrian Air Force brigadier (Damascus international airport is also a Syrian air base). I went to his office, a place I had visited many times in my efforts to develop a relationship with Brigadier Wafiq al-Halabi. After all, he could provide useful information or generally be helpful if he wished.

Brigadier Wafiq greeted me with the usual Arabic pronunciation of Rick as "RIKI," shook his head, motioned me to a chair, opened one of his desk drawers and took out a bottle of Johnny Walker Black scotch and two glasses. He poured each of us a rather large drink, leaned back and began to recount his impressions of the visit. Although Wafiq could speak fair English, he preferred that we speak Arabic - after all, it was his office, his airport, and his country.

I was struck by his final remarks. He told me that he and his staff felt belittled by the PPO representatives and the Secret Service agents. His words were to the effect of, "We know we are a third world country - you did not need to keep reminding us of it. You and I, Riki, are officers of our respective air forces, and you have always treated me with respect as a fellow officer and as a brigadier. Your colleagues did not."

Normally, Wafiq would end the conversation by saying, ila l-liqah, riki (until our next meeting, Rick). On this occasion, he chose to conclude his remarks in English with a curt, "Good night, Major."

Big difference. Over two years of painstakingly slow work trying to develop good working relationships with the airport and air force officers were all for naught, thanks to the arrogance of power displayed by two U.S. Secret Service agents and two U.S. Air Force officers.


* Despite popular usage, "Air Force One" is not an aircraft, but rather the radio call sign of any U.S. Air Force aircraft carrying the President of the United States. When the President is aboard a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter, its call sign is "Marine One."