The United States Secret Service—the agency that protects the president, foreign dignitaries, and various government officials, among other critical duties—has assumed an expanded new power that has Washington journalists up in arms.
The law enforcement agency—whose once-pristine reputation has been tarnished in recent years by scandal, congressional investigations and, more to the point, aggressive investigative reporting—is for the first time ever running background checks on thousands of journalists who want to attend this summer’s Republican and Democratic Party nominating conventions.
Journalists who don’t pass muster—in what several complain is an inscrutable security screening process for which there are no plainly established criteria, and from which there is no appeal—will be denied credentials to cover the GOP’s July 18-21 conclave in Cleveland, at which reality show billionaire Donald Trump is expected to be nominated, and the Democrats’ July 25-28 meeting in Philadelphia, at which former New York senator and secretary of state Hillary Clinton will likely be named the standard-bearer.
“I personally think it’s the government deciding who can and can’t be a journalist, and I don’t think the First Amendment allows that,” said Newark Star-Ledger Washington correspondent Jonathan D. Salant, a member and former chairman of the Standing Committee of Correspondents, the organization which represents the interests of the four media galleries on Capitol Hill (daily press, periodical press, photographers and broadcasters) and has run the credentialing process for political conventions—without Secret Service interference—since 1912.
The Secret Service—which referred The Daily Beast to its FAQ page and an April story in Politico—argues that Salant’s objection reflects a misunderstanding of the agency’s role, which isn’t to determine who is or isn’t a journalist, but simply to vet individuals whose names have been submitted by journalistic outlets in accordance with ground rules set by convention organizers and the media galleries.
In addition, the Secret Service says it isn’t singling out journalists for special scrutiny—never mind that these background checks apparently won’t be conducted on thousands of delegates and guests; members of convention host committees, vendors, volunteers and others must also be vetted for credentials to attend what the agency has designated a “National Special Security Event,” especially if they want to operate in what the agency identifies as “secure areas” of the convention halls, such as the podium and backstage holding rooms.
Directors of the various congressional media galleries—whose professional staffers are nonpartisan and paid by the Speaker of the House or the Senate Rules Committee, depending on which side of the Capitol they service—have met twice with Secret Service officials, who were initially resistant to the idea of meeting face-to-face to explain the intricacies of the new policy, according to a well-placed congressional source, and have informed gallery staffers that a requested third meeting will not take place.
“Their attitude was, ‘We have our marching orders, and this is the way it’s going to be,’” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
When the media galleries first reached out to the Secret Service, “the agency didn’t care who they were,” asking disrespectfully of the gallery staff, “Who the hell are you?”
The source added, “They [the Secret Service] were complete blockheads about it.”
The Secret Service eventually agreed to sit down with the gallery directors in February, and in the second session at the Capitol brought along a top official of the Ardian Group—the Pennsylvania-based private contractor to whom the government agency is outsourcing the job of vetting an estimated 15,000 journalists who have applied for credentials to report in the convention halls and work out of media filing centers in Cleveland and Philadelphia.
In that meeting, Ardian executive Heidi Talalay expressed confidence in the company’s ability to handle the labor-intensive assignment, and pointed out that a previous Ardian job—vetting journalists for credentials to cover Pope Francis’s September 2015 visit to the United States—went smoothly, an assertion that contradicted numerous complaints at the time about a process that struck many journalists as confusing and frustrating.
“I don’t think they know what they’re in for,” said a participant in the meeting, who was skeptical of Talalay’s rosy predictions about performing background checks for the conventions, contrary to the Secret Service’s impression that people at the meeting breathed sighs of relief after hearing an explanation of Ardian’s process.
Talalay didn’t respond to a voice mail message left by The Daily Beast.
In a widely distributed “Dear Colleagues” letter, John Stanton, Washington bureau chief of BuzzFeed, wrote that the Secret Service’s new “process raises some troubling questions. What would disqualify a reporter from covering a convention? The lack of transparency leaves open the possibility of abuse. Over the last two years, for instance, several of our colleagues have been arrested while covering protests—would those arrests disqualify them? Could something like political activity in college disqualify a reporter? Without explanation or recourse, how would a reporter or an outlet even know what had prevented their credentialing?”
Stanton added: “More broadly, there are significant questions about the Secret Service being involved in this process at all, especially this year. There has already been at least one documented instance of a physical altercation between a Secret Service agent and a fellow journalist”—a reference to a February incident at a Trump rally in which an agent tackled and choked Time magazine photographer Chris Morris after the latter cursed and kicked at him.
“Additionally, multiple reporters from many of your own outlets have informed me that agents have begun enforcing press ‘pen’ rules at campaign stops and limiting the free movement of journalists, at the behest of Donald Trump’s campaign.
“Given that dynamic, why should the Secret Service have jurisdiction over the 1st Amendment for the Republican and Democratic conventions?”
Salant, for his part, told The Daily Beast that three months of constructive engagement and quiet diplomacy with the agency have yielded zero accommodations from the Secret Service, which is premising its unprecedented credentialing authority on a 2013 Obama administration national security directive—Presidential Policy Directive 22—whose language is classified and thus not publicly available.
Needless to say, it is extremely unusual, at least in the American context, for a government agency to formulate a policy regarding the news media, based on the possibly tendentious interpretation of a secret directive that, because the content and purpose of the directive are a mystery, is not open for discussion. An official listing of President Obama’s directives mentions the existence of PPD 22 but otherwise offers no explanation, leaving the line blank. (An anonymous law enforcement official told Politico that the directive gives the Secret Service to power of enforcing “access control.”)
This is yet another irony for a president who regularly touts his administration’s alleged “transparency” and, as recently as his remarks during last Saturday’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, frequently lauds the role of the Fourth Estate in demanding government accountability.
Salant said he hopes that in a meeting of the Standing Committee scheduled for next Tuesday, he and his fellow committee members vote to go public with objections that they have already expressed privately in a Jan. 29 letter to Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy.
“We believe this effort is an unprecedented, discriminatory move that, in the name of security, unfairly singles out members of the media who are simply exercising their First Amendment right to cover a nationally significant news event,” reads the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Daily Beast.
“As we understand it, this intrusive vetting process will not be imposed on delegates, alternates and invited guests to the conventions—all of whom will be accessing the same areas in the convention hall as the news media,” the letter continues. “We find it perplexing that subjecting only the news media to a higher level of scrutiny would ensure a secure convention, while thousands of other attendees go unchecked and unverified.”
The letter adds: “We wish to point out that the additional level of scrutiny will prevent news organizations from adding reporters at the last minute to respond to breaking news, such as the selection of a vice presidential running mate since those reporters may not have yet been assigned to cover that story and therefore not undergone the required background check.
“We see the press’s role in covering the national political parties as an integral part of democracy that was founded on the idea of freedom of the press.
“Our long-established press credentialing system through the Standing Committee, which is empowered by Congress, has functioned extraordinarily well for over a century. We truly believe it imprudent to change it now, especially at this late date in the convention cycle.”
The White House Correspondents Association—which has no responsibility for convention credentialing—raised the issue in a meeting between association’s board members and the Secret Service, but so far has not taken a public position on the issue.
Standing Committee Chairman Matthew Daly, a congressional correspondent for the Associated Press, said that journalists in the end will have no choice but to follow the Secret Service’s procedures, and isn’t sure that public hostilities with the agency will improve the situation.
“They already know we’re unhappy,” Daly said. “What’s that old country saying about being kicked in the head by the mule the third time?”
Daly pointed out that the Standing Committee has already lost a different battle—that is, for the Republicans to rescind a $150 charge to news organizations for each seat on the press stand in the convention hall—an “access fee to cover the news,” as Daly calls it, that the Democrats are not imposing, at least not this time around.
Meanwhile, Daly said there seemed to be little support for an idea advanced by Ryan Grim, Washington bureau chief of the Huffington Post, for news organizations to protest the Secret Service’s credential vetting process simply by boycotting it.
“I floated the idea that we just collectively tell them we’re not going to participate in their background checks, maybe by not providing Social Security numbers,” Grim told The Daily Beast, adding that if the 20 top news outlets threw down the gauntlet, it would definitely get attention from the powers that be. “If we didn’t participate, it would be leaving them with the choice of not credentialing us. It would be a game of chicken at that point.”
While conceding that his idea is probably quixotic, Grim said a direct appeal to the Secretary of Homeland Security, who oversees the Secret Service, might be more effective—especially if the pitch is made by a journalist over drinks at one of the frequent Washington gatherings that the extremely sociable Cabinet secretary enjoys attending.
“I think the ace in the hole here is Jeh Johnson,” Grim said, apparently tongue in cheek. “He hasn’t skipped a dinner party since he became secretary, and he doesn’t want to be on Dana Bash’s bad side.”