Secret Service controls journalists’ access to US presidential campaign

Secret Service look on as Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a town hall at the Rochester Opera House in Rochester, New Hampshire, on Thurs., Feb. 4, 2016.  - M. Scott Brauer
Secret Service look on as Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a town hall at the Rochester Opera House in Rochester, New Hampshire, on Thurs., Feb. 4, 2016. – M. Scott Brauer

The US Secret Service has taken an increased role in controlling access and behavior to political events where they operate, and that is raising concerns about journalists’ access and ability to cover the current US presidential election process. For the first time, the Secret Service now has authority over which journalists are issued credentials for the Democratic and Republican National Conventions.

This article on the Dissent NewsWire published by the Bill of Rights Defense Committee offers a good summary of the issues at hand. First, journalists must have applied for credentials through the Congressional Press Galleries (the deadline was in April). After that application is approved, the process is handed over to the Secret Service to run background checks, though the actual background checks will be handled by a third-party private company called Ardian Group. The same company handled background checks for press covering the Pope’s 2015 visit to the United States.

Writing to media colleagues (parts of which were published by Politico and the Daily Beast) BuzzFeed’s Washington Bureau Chief John Stanton detailed his concerns about the Secret Service’s new role in vetting journalists. “It seems like an unnecessary step and it gives them in my mind a new and troubling precedence to try and exert authority over the press corps,” Stanton wrote. Because the process lacks any transparency, he wonders what might disqualify a reporter from being able to cover the Conventions. Would Christopher Morris be refused access because of his well-documented assault by a Secret Service agent and subsequent removal from a Trump event? What about reporters who’ve been arrested during the process of their reporting? “[T]he Secret Service told POLITICO that such an arrest would not warrant a denial. Instead, they said they were looking for such things as aggravated assault or domestic violence charges — even multiple DUIs wouldn’t necessarily warrant a denial, they said.”

But right now, there is no way to know what will result in a denial of credentials, and as far as I can tell, there is no appeals process for a denied credential. “The Secret Service has refused to explain what past activities would prevent a journalist from obtaining clearance, and there is no viable appeals process. So a reporter may be denied the ability to cover the convention based on incorrect information, or political motivation,” writes Sue Udry for the Bill of Rights Defense Committee.

“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,” BuzzFeed’s Stanton wrote (excerpted at the Daily Beast), “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.”

Screenshot of US Secret Service FAQ page with information about background checks and security for so-called National Special Security Events. - screenshot taken 25 May 2016 - http://www.secretservice.gov/about/faqs/
Screenshot of US Secret Service FAQ page with information about background checks and security for so-called National Special Security Events. – screenshot taken 25 May 2016 – http://www.secretservice.gov/about/faqs/

The Secret Service’s authority to do this stems from a 2012 change to US Criminal Code, 18 US Code § 3056 (e) (1), which reads, “When directed by the President, the United States Secret Service is authorized to participate, under the direction of the Secretary of Homeland Security, in the planning, coordination, and implementation of security operations at special events of national significance, as determined by the President,” and Presidential Decision Directive 22, a secret directive issued by President Obama in 2013. Obama’s administration does not have a great track record for ease of press access.

I’m going through the screening process right now, so this is an issue close to me. I ran into issues with the Secret Service a couple of times while covering the New Hampshire primary for my project, This is the worst party I’ve ever been to. Before one Clinton event, a Secret Service officer dropped my flash. At a couple of Trump events, Secret Service officers prevented the press from getting close to the stage, despite promises from the campaign that we would have an opportunity to do so. At one event, members of the press couldn’t go to the bathroom without an escort. At another, a CNN reporter was threatened with being blacklisted from covering future events if he left the designated press area. At a Ben Carson event, Secret Service first denied me access to the event (their information about access times was different from what the campaign press liaison had sent via email) and then told me I couldn’t move around a room where members of the public were allowed to move around without restriction; at that event, the Carson press liaison said she had no problem with me being there or moving around the room, and didn’t know why the Secret Service was being so restrictive.

As it stands, it’s getting more difficult to cover politics, and that’s troubling.

Comments are closed.