Volunteers without full background checks drive in Obama’s motorcade

Volunteers without full background checks drive in Obama’s motorcade
Outside the nation’s capital, it's not highly trained Secret Service agents who drive the vehicles at the tail end of the presidential motorcade. Instead, volunteers with no training or security clearance shuttle around administration staff and the press.

Natalie Tyson, a 24-year-old San Francisco-area graduate student, drove a van in the motorcade when President Barack Obama arrived in the City by the Bay for a fundraiser this fall. She and other volunteers serve as “a link in the middle of the fastest, and highest-profile, chain of vehicles in the country,” the New York Times reported.

She got the gig after a childhood friend ‒ who is now a White House staffer ‒ texted her to see if she was interested.

“He just texted me and said, ‘Do you want to volunteer as part of this and drive in the motorcade?’ ” Tyson said. “It was kind of sudden. I didn’t even know the president was going to be in town.”

The security risk for those shuttling around low-level administration staff and reporters is far less important than their cost: “They are cheaper than the Secret Service personnel or local police officers who surround them on the road,” according to the Times.

As her only payment, Tyson took a picture with the president.

Volunteer driver Natalie Tyson in front of the president's limousine (Facebook)

The practice of using volunteer drivers has been standard since at least the 1980s, according to the Secret Service. They “are briefed by the Secret Service agent responsible for the motorcade prior to any movements” about what to do in case of an emergency, like an attack, a spokesman for the agency said.

But in reality ‒ and despite a series of high-profile security breachesinvolving the Secret Service that led to the agency director resigning ‒ Tyson said she received little instruction from the agents tasked with protecting the president with their lives. What would she do if there was a high-speed emergency? She assumed that she should just follow the car in front of her no matter what happened, she told the Times’ Michael S. Schmidt in a phone interview.

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Although agents are aware of ‒ and complicit in ‒ the use of uncleared, untrained chauffeurs they don’t approve. Dan Emmett, a Secret Service agent from 1983 to 2004 and the author of ‘Within Arm’s Length: A Secret Service Agent’s Definitive Inside Account of Protecting the President’, considers them a national security threat.

“You are face to face with a young person who is just completely full of themselves and enthralled,” Emmett told Schmidt, recalling the years when he was part of the motorcade’s counterassault team, which traveled in vehicles in front of the volunteers. “We were more concerned with that than an attack on the motorcade.”

The so-called secure package of vehicles that includes the president’s bulletproof and bombproof limousine, the agents traveling with him and an ambulance could easily detach from the vans and take off, Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan said.

Indeed the press does get separated on occasion, as happened on Tuesday when the press pool bus lost a tire going 60 miles an hour on a Hawaii highway. It also occurred during a 2012 campaign event in San Antonio, Texas, David Nakamura explained in a Washington Post blog on Wednesday. He recounted losing sight of the president’s car in the motorcade, resulting in “a white-knuckled, police-escorted chase through the streets at upwards of 90 miles per hour.”

“Much to my chagrin, it was then that I learned the drivers of the press vans, unlike the presidential limo, are not highly trained Secret Service personnel but volunteers,” he recalled.

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After Obama was elected ‒ but before he was sworn in as president ‒ volunteer drivers were used in Washington, DC, too.

Natalie Tyson and Secret Service agents in front of the president's limousine (Facebook)

In January 2009, Sophia Lear, a 23-year-old editorial assistant at The New Republic, was given the opportunity to drive a van in Obama’s motorcade, according to a February 2009 New Yorker article. She had to email her Social Security and driver’s license numbers to the Presidential Inaugural Committee (PIC).

When she arrived for her assignment, she went through “something like airport security” before getting the keys to a rented Dodge minivan, in which she would chauffeur high-level staffers, including General James L. Jones and Lawrence Summers.

A Secret Service agent gave Lear some driving advice: “Don’t hit anything, and drive like you stole it.”

At one point, a staffer asked her to drive for the rest of the week. She declined, saying she had a job.

“I was, like, ‘what’s going on here? How could you possibly be so desperate for somebody to drive in the motorcade?’” Lear recounted to the New Yorker’s Lizzie Widdicombe.

On Inauguration Night, Lear told an Obama staffer of her “real-life Grand Theft Auto” experience. He seemed unimpressed, she said to Widdicombe. “He told me, ‘Yeah, they transitioned to the official Presidential motorcade today.’ As in ‘That was the last chance you’ll ever get.’”

Unless, of course, the motorcade is in San Francisco, San Antonio or any city outside Washington, DC