Presidential Security: Bodies, Bubbles, & Bunkers

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Virginia Tech

The purpose of this research is to show how the idea of presidential security is a construct that has taken on several different meanings and rationalities in the American context due to shifting power relations, new practices of presidential security, and the constant re-formulation of the friend/enemy distinction. The United States Service has had to continually think and re-think the concept of presidential security in order to provide suitable protection for the President of the United States. In creating these spaces of protection, the practices of the Secret Service have slowly contributed to re-constituting the sovereign to fit the agency's particular logics and rationalities. The capturing of the Chief Executive Officer does not only rest on disciplinary techniques that restrict, but are also founded on the truth production of the Secret Service: presidents begin to accept and internalize the modus operandi of the Secret Service. They begin to self-monitor their own desires and actions related to security concerns. The walls of protection are coupled with a conscious capitulation to accept the barriers of protection. The cage is no longer only imposed from without, but also emerges internally.

By problematizing how this evolving security bubble encapsulates the president, this dissertation is able to examine how the Secret Service begins to reshape and reformulate key democratic governance values by protecting the public and private body of the president through a disciplinary apparatus that seeks to control and contain as well as display and deliberate. Democratic norms that privilege openness have to be challenged, if not curtailed, to adequately protect the Chief Executive Officer. Everyone and everything is a risk that must be inspected, catalogued, and watched, even the president cannot be trusted with his own safety.

With its mission to protect, the Secret Service has constructed an organizational operation to ostracize the other, permanently put the president behind protective procedures, and present a pleasing public persona fitting to the status of the POTUS. These overt actions have allowed an administrative agency to redefine key democratic governance values. The agency has been able to delineate who is a suspicious other, justify the placement of barricades that separate the president from the people, instill a preventive/security ethos in the Office of the President, and display the president as the apex of a constitutional order. Because of its successes and failures, presidential protection has become normal, acceptable, legitimate, and absolutely necessary, which has provided the Service the ability to give shape to a particular rationality concerning what the president can and cannot do. This constitutive role of a public agency has had a dramatic impact on how the people come to experience and interact with the POTUS.

The development of the Secret Service and its protective procedures, however, has been sporadic and tenuous. For the past 100 years, this emerging rationality was produced by a multitude of sources that have helped construct the idea and practice of presidential security. The subjects of insecurity and security mutually created the idea of POTUS endangerment and safety. Enemies of the state have helped mold state action while friends of the president have sought to project an image of presidential grandeur. In this context, the Service has had to secure territorial spaces in order to conceal and confuse threats while simultaneously having to display and disclose the presidential body to the public. The capacity to control threats and to coordinate the presidential spectacle has enabled the Service to direct the body and mind of the POTUS. With this disciplinary apparatus in place, the Secret Service is able to construct bubbles and bunkers that are designed to protect and trap the president's two bodies.

President of the United States, United States Secret Service, Foucault, Schmitt, organizational power and politics