It’s not actually about the First Daughter, per se, who according to serially vanishing stories has been vacationing with a group of friends in Mexico — a country for which the State Department just last month issued a new warning to all U.S. travelers.
It’s about the judgment of the White House, which apparently deems there is “no vital news interest” to this story.
Let us set aside the obvious hypocrisy of a president who denounces the “1%” and calls for Americans to tighten their belts, while members of his own family summer on a Martha’s Vineyard estate, spend Christmas beachside at Oahu, and travel for fun to the ski slopes of Colorado, the luxury suites of Marbella, and now, scenic spots in Mexico. If that is the image Obama wants to cultivate, or those are the family pleasures with which he wishes to balance the rigors of his presidency, so be it.
Let us set aside, for the moment, the queasy feeling it brings, reminiscent of the air-brushed politburo photos of Mao’s China, to see news stories erased, one after another, at the behest of the White House. Doubtless there are security concerns here. Though, especially in the information age, it suggests an odd obliviousness to think that an optional holiday, entailing security concerns presumably serious enough to warrant erasing news stories, should not qualify as a legitimate story.
Let us even set aside the cost to taxpayers of dispatching Secret Service agents — reportedly, 25 of them — to Mexico, not for official White House business, not for something that clearly benefits belt-tightening U.S. taxpayers, but for the pleasure trip of a family member. There is a case to be made, persuasive or not, that the presidency should not be such a burden as to preclude whatever the first family can manage in the way of reasonable socializing and entertainment.
Let us also set aside any tut-tutting about parental discretion in letting teenagers travel to places under a travel warning from the State Department. The First Family is in a good position to weigh the risks to its members, and is doubtless well acquainted with the first-rate competence of the Secret Service to provide security, which, when factored into the equation, presumably goes far to lower the risk for the vacationing First Family member.
But that brings us to the risks faced by those traveling secret service agents — whether 25 in number, or whatever the precise total might be. Yes, their job is to protect the First Family, and that includes taking a bullet or laying down their lives, if need be, to ensure that not a hair on a First Head is harmed. We can expect to hear no complaints from the Secret Service. But those Secret Service agents quite likely have families, too. They have now been dispatched to do their job not within U.S. shores where American authorities have enormous powers to minimize the risks, nor in a place which the State Department at least regards as routinely secure for Americans to amuse themselves on spring breaks.
Instead, these Secret Service agents have been sent to provide security in Mexico, where the State Department warns that due to transnational criminal organizations, “crime and violence are serious problems throughout the country” including “homicide, gun battles, kidnapping, carjacking and highway robbery.” State reports that “gun battles have occurred in broad daylight on streets and in other public venues, such as restaurants and clubs.” Of particular concern are “kidnappings and disappearances throughout Mexico,” with local police in some cases implicated. State adds that U.S. government personnel and their families “are prohibited from travel” to some of the most dangerous areas. And though the holiday destination reported in the vanishing new stories is not on the list of Mexican provinces totally taboo for personal travel of government personnel, State warns that in Mexico, “even if no advisories are in effect for a given state, crime and violence can occur anywhere.”
Perhaps one way the White House is entitled to regard the Secret Service is that there should be no constraints on the risks its agents are asked to run, for whatever reason. Certainly if the president wants to visit Afghanistan (which he’s done twice, on highly secured “surprise” visits, during his presidency), or go to Mexico on official business, it’s appropriate that Secret Service agents are expected to go with him, and do their jobs, at higher risk, to protect him and any family members in tow. But — hoping that all goes safely and smoothly with this Mexican spring break, and trusting to the Secret Service to ensure the safety of members of the First Family, wherever they might go — may we ask, nonetheless, a question:
In the terrible event that State’s warning proves relevant, and in the course of doing whatever it takes to provide security, any of those 25 or so American Secret Service agents are wounded or even killed in the line of fire, would the White House still consider the context a non-story? Would it be irrelevant that they had been asked to run such risks not to safeguard official business, but to enable a personal holiday trip to a place under a U.S. government travel warning? One need not quarrel over whether the White House, or anyone in it, is entitled to organize holiday trips to just about anywhere on the planet. But being entitled to do something does not necessarily mean it’s a good idea to do it. Where’s the sense of responsibility to those who serve? Where’s the judgment?