White House officials were still shaking their heads in disbelief yesterday that President Bush personally had to rescue a U.S. Secret Service agent from angry Chilean security officials Saturday night.
“This is a pretty big deal,” said a senior White House official, who called the incident a “melee.”
“I mean, the guy who was supposed to be guarded had to rescue the guy who was supposed to be guarding him.”
The official expressed astonishment that Chilean security officials had stopped the No. 2 agent on Mr. Bush’s security detail from accompanying the president into a meeting with another world leader, an unprecedented public breach of security arrangements agreed upon in advance.
In recent years, some foreign officials have complained about the Secret Service’s high-profile presence when the president travels abroad, suggesting that foreign security officials have been relegated to backup roles or ignored. In Chile, the Secret Service had arranged for its agents be posted inside the Estacion Mapocho Cultural Center for a meeting between Mr. Bush and Chilean President Ricardo Lagos.
One law-enforcement official said the Chileans had been attempting to “send a message” that they would control the president’s movements on their turf, but the Secret Service agents balked. One of them shouted, “You’re not stopping me, I’m with the president.”
Secret Service spokesman Jonathan Cherry said yesterday that there had been some sort of misunderstanding in Chile but declined to elaborate.
In contrast to Chile, which rejected Secret Service protocols, Colombia ceded control of 15,000 of its troops to the United States when Mr. Bush visited there yesterday. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe also agreed to allow heavily armed U.S. Navy forces to patrol the waters around Cartegena in rubber boats.
“This beautiful city, which is now adorned by your visit, wants you to take back to the people of the United States an invitation to come and visit,” Mr. Uribe said during a joint press conference with Mr. Bush. “We have made a major effort, Mr. President, which translates into greater security.”
After the 1901 assassination of President McKinley, Congress directed the Secret Service to provide round-the-clock protection for U.S. presidents, an assignment that quickly became and has remained the agency’s primary mission.
Today, the Secret Service is authorized by law to protect not only the president, but also the vice president, their families, those in line to succeed the president, former presidents, their spouses, visiting heads of foreign states or governments, and other distinguished foreign visitors to the United States.
It also investigates threats against those it protects, and ensures the safety of the White House and other buildings.
Asked during the press conference about the security flap in Chile, Mr. Bush declined to answer the question directly, instead insisting his visit had been “fabulous.”
Law-enforcement authorities said the Chileans, who claimed to be in charge of security for the event, stopped Secret Service agent Nick Trotta as he was escorting Mr. Bush and first lady Laura Bush into the center, jumping in front of the agent as he approached the building entry. The authorities said the Chilean officers had seemed poised to act.
At least one Secret Service agent was shoved against a wall, the authorities said, as Mr. Trotta continued to push his way into the center. It was then that Mr. Bush responded, pushing into the crowd of angry security officials, pointing at Mr. Trotta and ordering that he be released. Mr. Bush finally reached over and grabbed the agent by the suit collar.
“He’s with me,” Mr. Bush said as he waded into the scuffle and pulled the agent through the crowd.
The authorities said the Chilean agents were shocked when they determined that the man pushing over them was Mr. Bush, who, they said, grabbed Mr. Trotta, adjusted his shirt cuffs and then winked at bystanders with the agent at his side.
La Cuarta, a Santiago newspaper, described Mr. Bush’s actions as a “total breach of protocol” and referred to him as “John Wayne … definitely acting like a cowboy.”
The incident led to the cancellation of an official state dinner for Mr. Bush and his Chilean counterpart, to which 200 guests had been invited, most of them top-level Chilean officials. Chile scrapped the dinner when the Secret Service demanded that the dignitaries pass through metal detectors.
The Secret Service also is assigned the task of protecting official representatives of the United States performing special missions abroad, which would include the president during state visits.
It also is required under the Presidential Threat Protection Act of 2000 to participate in the planning, coordination and implementation of security operations at special events of national significance, as determined by the president.
James Lakely, traveling with the president in South America, contributed to this report.