Shame on the Secret Service. This week, it investigated renowned editorial cartoonist Michael Ramirez like he was some left-wing homeless crackpot who had sent President Bush an anthrax-laced death threat -- all because Ramirez drew a provocative cartoon that was clearly intended to defend the president.
Meanwhile, the Secret Service can't even keep a loony-tunes stowaway from conning his way onto a White House press charter plane in Africa or prevent a known wacko named the "Handshake Man" from slipping past security and personally delivering an unscreened letter to Bush at a public event in Washington, D.C.
Ramirez is the Pulitzer Prize-winning, Mencken Award-toting artist who is one of the few openly and avowedly pro-Bush conservatives in his line of work. Last Sunday, his home newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, published one of Ramirez's boldly sketched cartoons.
In it, a man points a gun at a caricature of President Bush. The assailant has "politics" written across his back, and there's a sign on the street scene in the back reading "Iraq." The cartoon is a takeoff of a famous 1968 photograph from the Vietnam War showing a Vietnamese police officer shooting a man he said was a Viet Cong in the right temple on a Saigon street.
As Ramirez patiently explained it to a Times reporter, the cartoon is a defense of Bush -- not an invitation to assassination. He was trying to show that Bush is being undermined by leftist anti-war goons who say the president overstated the threat posed by Iraq. "President Bush is the target, metaphorically speaking, of a political assassination because of 16 words that he uttered in the State of the Union," Ramirez told the Times. "The image, from the Vietnam era, is a very disturbing image. The political attack on the president, based strictly on sheer political motivations, also is very disturbing."
The slow-witted buffoons at the Secret Service interpreted Ramirez's work as a "snuff" cartoon and quickly dispatched an agent to the Times to question Ramirez as a potential threat to the president. Few of Ramirez's free-speech-crusading colleagues in the elite media have come to his defense, but conservative Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, issued a scathing attack of the Secret Service's heavy-handedness.
In a letter to Secret Service Director Ralph Basham, Rep. Cox said the Secret Service owed Ramirez an apology. The use of "federal power to attempt to influence the work of an editorial cartoonist for the Los Angeles Times," Cox continued, "reflects profoundly bad judgment."
And profoundly bad management.
The Ramirez episode is only the most recent Secret Service bungle that calls into question President Bush's safety. Just earlier this month, the federal protection squad allowed a Ugandan joker -- with no press credentials and no passport -- to slip onto a press bus during Bush's South Africa trip and board a press charter plane that shadows Air Force One. Not one Secret Service agent noticed him during the four-hour flight, or during another press bus ride that the stowaway took to a Bush event at Lake Victoria. It was a White House press officer who finally detected the media charlatan.
The president was never in any danger, argues the Secret Service incredibly.
The service also insists he wasn't in harm's way in February when the Rev. Rich Weaver, an infamous publicity stuntman known as the "Handshake Man" who has evaded White House security for years, eluded Secret Service agents at a National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., and lifted the rope around Bush's table to give the president a personal letter.
Insight Magazine investigative reporter John Berlau has reported on far more serious security breakdowns involving the White House's computerized access-control system operated by the Secret Service. And U.S. News and World Report recently charged that the service maintains "inadequate oversight" in disciplining misconduct. "Holdovers at the agency still are more interested in suppressing internal criticism than in fixing security problems," Berlau notes.
In an age of terror, America's president needs competent lifesavers, not cartoonish face-savers. Heads should roll -- and no, Secret Service geniuses, I don't mean that literally.