How The Secret Service Protects Bush From Free
by James Bovard, San Francisco Chronicle, January 4, 2003
President Bush travels around the United States, the Secret
Service visits the location ahead of time and orders local police
to set up "free speech zones" or "protest zones,"
where people opposed to Bush policies (and sometimes sign-carrying
supporters) are quarantined. These zones routinely succeed in
keeping protesters out of presidential sight and outside the
view of media covering the event.
When Bush went to the Pittsburgh area on Labor Day 2002, 65-year-old
retired steel worker Bill Neel was there to greet him with a
sign proclaiming, "The Bush family must surely love the
poor, they made so many of us."
The local police, at the Secret Service's behest, set up a "designated
free-speech zone" on a baseball field surrounded by a chain-link
fence a third of a mile from the location of Bush's speech.
The police cleared the path of the motorcade of all critical
signs, but folks with pro-Bush signs were permitted to line
the president's path. Neel refused to go to the designated area
and was arrested for disorderly conduct; the police also confiscated
Neel later commented, "As far as I'm concerned, the whole
country is a free-speech zone. If the Bush administration has
its way, anyone who criticizes them will be out of sight and
out of mind."
At Neel's trial, police Detective John Ianachione testified
that the Secret Service told local police to confine "people
that were there making a statement pretty much against the president
and his views" in a so-called free- speech area.
Paul Wolf, one of the top officials in the Allegheny County
Police Department, told Salon that the Secret Service "come
in and do a site survey, and say, 'Here's a place where the
people can be, and we'd like to have any protesters put in a
place that is able to be secured.' "
Pennsylvania District Judge Shirley Rowe Trkula threw out the
disorderly conduct charge against Neel, declaring, "I believe
this is America. Whatever happened to 'I don't agree with you,
but I'll defend to the death your right to say it'?"
Similar suppressions have occurred during Bush visits to Florida.
A recent St. Petersburg Times editorial noted, "At a Bush
rally at Legends Field in 2001, three demonstrators -- two of
whom were grandmothers -- were arrested for holding up small
handwritten protest signs outside the designated zone. And last
year, seven protesters were arrested when Bush came to a rally
at the USF Sun Dome. They had refused to be cordoned off into
a protest zone hundreds of yards from the entrance to the Dome."
One of the arrested protesters was a 62-year-old man holding
up a sign, "War is good business. Invest your sons."
The seven were charged with trespassing, "obstructing without
violence and disorderly conduct."
Police have repressed protesters during several Bush visits
to the St. Louis area as well. When Bush visited on Jan. 22,
150 people carrying signs were shunted far away from the main
action and effectively quarantined.
Denise Lieberman of the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern
Missouri commented, "No one could see them from the street.
In addition, the media were not allowed to talk to them. The
police would not allow any media inside the protest area and
wouldn't allow any of the protesters out of the protest zone
to talk to the media."
When Bush stopped by a Boeing plant to talk to workers, Christine
Mains and her 5-year-old daughter disobeyed orders to move to
a small protest area far from the action. Police arrested Mains
and took her and her crying daughter away in separate squad
The Justice Department is now prosecuting Brett Bursey, who
was arrested for holding a "No War for Oil" sign at
a Bush visit to Columbia, S.C. Local police, acting under Secret
Service orders, established a "free-speech zone" half
a mile from where Bush would speak. Bursey was standing amid
hundreds of people carrying signs praising the president. Police
told Bursey to remove himself to the "free-speech zone."
Bursey refused and was arrested. Bursey said that he asked the
police officer if "it was the content of my sign, and he
said, 'Yes, sir, it's the content of your sign that's the problem.'
" Bursey stated that he had already moved 200 yards from
where Bush was supposed to speak. Bursey later complained, "The
problem was, the restricted area kept moving. It was wherever
I happened to be standing."
Bursey was charged with trespassing. Five months later, the
charge was dropped because South Carolina law prohibits arresting
people for trespassing on public property. But the Justice Department
-- in the person of U.S. Attorney Strom Thurmond Jr. -- quickly
jumped in, charging Bursey with violating a rarely enforced
federal law regarding "entering a restricted area around
the president of the United States."
If convicted, Bursey faces a six-month trip up the river and
a $5,000 fine. Federal Magistrate Bristow Marchant denied Bursey's
request for a jury trial because his violation is categorized
as a petty offense. Some observers believe that the feds are
seeking to set a precedent in a conservative state such as South
Carolina that could then be used against protesters nationwide.
Bursey's trial took place on Nov. 12 and 13. His lawyers sought
the Secret Service documents they believed would lay out the
official policies on restricting critical speech at presidential
visits. The Bush administration sought to block all access to
the documents, but Marchant ruled that the lawyers could have
Bursey sought to subpoena Attorney General John Ashcroft and
presidential adviser Karl Rove to testify. Bursey lawyer Lewis
Pitts declared, "We intend to find out from Mr. Ashcroft
why and how the decision to prosecute Mr. Bursey was reached."
The magistrate refused, however, to enforce the subpoenas. Secret
Service agent Holly Abel testified at the trial that Bursey
was told to move to the "free-speech zone" but refused
The feds have offered some bizarre rationales for hog-tying
protesters. Secret Service agent Brian Marr explained to National
Public Radio, "These individuals may be so involved with
trying to shout their support or nonsupport that inadvertently
they may walk out into the motorcade route and be injured. And
that is really the reason why we set these places up, so we
can make sure that they have the right of free speech, but,
two, we want to be sure that they are able to go home at the
end of the evening and not be injured in any way." Except
for having their constitutional rights shredded.
The ACLU, along with several other organizations, is suing the
Secret Service for what it charges is a pattern and practice
of suppressing protesters at Bush events in Arizona, California,
Connecticut, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, Texas and elsewhere.
The ACLU's Witold Walczak said of the protesters, "The
individuals we are talking about didn't pose a security threat;
they posed a political threat."
The Secret Service is duty-bound to protect the president. But
it is ludicrous to presume that would-be terrorists are lunkheaded
enough to carry anti-Bush signs when carrying pro-Bush signs
would give them much closer access. And even a policy of removing
all people carrying signs -- as has happened in some demonstrations
-- is pointless because potential attackers would simply avoid
carrying signs. Assuming that terrorists are as unimaginative
and predictable as the average federal bureaucrat is not a recipe
for presidential longevity.
The Bush administration's anti-protester bias proved embarrassing
for two American allies with long traditions of raucous free
speech, resulting in some of the most repressive restrictions
in memory in free countries.
When Bush visited Australia in October, Sydney Morning Herald
columnist Mark Riley observed, "The basic right of freedom
of speech will adopt a new interpretation during the Canberra
visits this week by George Bush and his Chinese counterpart,
Hu Jintao. Protesters will be free to speak as much as they
like just as long as they can't be heard."
Demonstrators were shunted to an area away from the Federal
Parliament building and prohibited from using any public address
system in the area.
For Bush's recent visit to London, the White House demanded
that British police ban all protest marches, close down the
center of the city and impose a "virtual three-day shutdown
of central London in a bid to foil disruption of the visit by
anti-war protesters," according to Britain's Evening Standard.
But instead of a "free-speech zone," the Bush administration
demanded an "exclusion zone" to protect Bush from
Such unprecedented restrictions did not inhibit Bush from portraying
himself as a champion of freedom during his visit. In a speech
at Whitehall on Nov. 19, Bush hyped the "forward strategy
of freedom" and declared, "We seek the advance of
freedom and the peace that freedom brings."
Attempts to suppress protesters become more disturbing in light
of the Homeland Security Department's recommendation that local
police departments view critics of the war on terrorism as potential
terrorists. In a May terrorist advisory, the Homeland Security
Department warned local law enforcement agencies to keep an
eye on anyone who "expressed dislike of attitudes and decisions
of the U.S. government." If police vigorously followed
this advice, millions of Americans could be added to the official
lists of suspected terrorists.
Protesters have claimed that police have assaulted them during
demonstrations in New York, Washington and elsewhere.
One of the most violent government responses to an antiwar protest
occurred when local police and the federally funded California
Anti-Terrorism Task Force fired rubber bullets and tear gas
at peaceful protesters and innocent bystanders at the Port of
Oakland, injuring a number of people.
When the police attack sparked a geyser of media criticism,
Mike van Winkle, the spokesman for the California Anti-Terrorism
Information Center told the Oakland Tribune, "You can make
an easy kind of a link that, if you have a protest group protesting
a war where the cause that's being fought against is international
terrorism, you might have terrorism at that protest. You can
almost argue that a protest against that is a terrorist act."
Van Winkle justified classifying protesters as terrorists: "I've
heard terrorism described as anything that is violent or has
an economic impact, and shutting down a port certainly would
have some economic impact. Terrorism isn't just bombs going
off and killing people."
Such aggressive tactics become more ominous in the light of
the Bush administration's advocacy, in its Patriot II draft
legislation, of nullifying all judicial consent decrees restricting
state and local police from spying on those groups who may oppose
On May 30, 2002, Ashcroft effectively abolished restrictions
on FBI surveillance of Americans' everyday lives first imposed
in 1976. One FBI internal newsletter encouraged FBI agents to
conduct more interviews with antiwar activists "for plenty
of reasons, chief of which it will enhance the paranoia endemic
in such circles and will further service to get the point across
that there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox."
The FBI took a shotgun approach toward protesters partly because
of the FBI's "belief that dissident speech and association
should be prevented because they were incipient steps toward
the possible ultimate commission of act which might be criminal,"
according to a Senate report.
On Nov. 23 news broke that the FBI is actively conducting surveillance
of antiwar demonstrators, supposedly to "blunt potential
violence by extremist elements," according to a Reuters
interview with a federal law enforcement official.
Given the FBI's expansive definition of "potential violence"
in the past, this is a net that could catch almost any group
or individual who falls into official disfavor.
James Bovard is the author of "Terrorism & Tyranny:
Trampling Freedom, Justice, and Peace to Rid the World of Evil."