Top Obama advisers Jarrett and Axelrod given car privileges traditionally reserved for national security officials

Jon Ward Contributor
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President Obama has expanded the very small group of top aides who are given the privilege of taxpayer-funded personal drivers — who take them from their house to work and back home again each day — to include two top political advisers.

The Bush White House did not give the same privileges to any of its political advisers, according to former Bush administration officials. There is a record of the Clinton White House doing so once for two months, according to documents obtained by The Daily Caller.

Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod, both senior advisers to the president, have been given the luxurious and prestigious perk of being picked up at their homes and driven to work or around town throughout the day in government vehicles chauffeured by military drivers, according to a list of those given the benefit provided to The Daily Caller by the White House.

In addition, Jarrett has been made a “protectee” of the Secret Service, a spokesman for the agency said. It is not clear to what extent Jarrett receives protection. Neither the White House or Secret Service would comment on the matter.

“We don’t discuss the scope or nature of protection for any Secret Service protectee due to operational security concerns,” said Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan.

But except for a few weeks after 9/11, political advisers to Bush such as Karl Rove did not have Secret Service details with them except for the rare occasion where they gave a speech where protesters were expected.

Axelrod was given protectee status in the late summer of 2009, according to a blog written by a former Washington Post national security reporter. It is unclear whether he retains that status. Donovan declined to comment on Axelrod’s status.

Regardless, one knowledgeable source indicated that Jarrett has regular or semi-regular detail protection, which has left some questioning whether the close friend of the president’s, whose portfolio involves mostly outreach to the business sector and domestic policy, really needs the high level of security.

The White House and Secret Service would not comment on whether there have been threats or security concerns to merit the protection, though that is usually the reason agents are assigned to protect a government official. The Secret Service did say that the Obama administration has fewer protectees than the Bush administration did.

One eyewitness, on the morning of April 15, saw Jarrett being ferried to work on Pennsylvania Avenue in a black Dodge Charger SRT8 with official police lights mounted on the grill. There was a man in a suit and tie driving and another man in suit and tie in the passenger seat. Jarrett was in the back seat and appeared to be asleep.

The White House said it was not aware of Jarrett being driven to work in such a vehicle, since it is not a model usually used by the Secret Service or in the White House motor pool.

As for the car privileges, the term of art for being picked up and dropped off at home is “portal to portal.” The president is allowed to designate a small number of aides who can receive the service outside of those who get it automatically.

“We drew the line at who needed secure communications pretty much constantly,” said Joe Hagin, who was deputy White House chief of staff for operations. “Counsel didn’t have it. Karen Hughes, Dan Bartlett, they never had it. Karl [Rove] never had it. Barry Jackson never had it.”

Those who get it automatically include the president and vice president, cabinet members and their deputies, the national security adviser and the White House chief of staff.

There are some distinctions. The president, the vice president, the treasury secretary, the secretary of homeland security, the national security adviser and the chief of staff all get Secret Service protection, so their cars are driven by service agents.

The secretary of defense and secretary of state have their own security apparatus, who ferry them around town. The rest of the cabinet and their deputies get “portal to portal” cars driven by military aides from the White House motor pool.

In addition to all these, President George W. Bush designated the deputy national security adviser and his homeland security adviser to receive “portal to portal” privileges as well, Joe Hagin, who was Bush’s deputy chief of staff for operations, said.

On Aug. 16, 2007, Bush added Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, his “war czar” for Iraq and Afghanistan, to the list of those on the “portal to portal” list, according to a copy of a letter sent by Alan Swendiman, special assistant to Bush in the office of administration, to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Clinton, in 1994, gave the “portal to portal” privilege to the assistant to the president for public liaison, Alexis Herman, from February to April, according to a copy of a June 16, 1994 letter to the House Oversight Committee.

Jarrett, in addition to her position as a senior adviser to Obama, carries the title of assistant to the president for intergovernmental affairs and public engagement.

A larger group of the president’s top aides – anywhere from 40 to 50 who fit the title “commissioned officers” – have access to drivers and cars from the White House motor pool throughout the day. But they must drive themselves to and from the White House when they come to work and go home.

Hagin said that during the Bush administration “there were people lobbying for portal to portal,” most of them from agencies outside the White House, such as the State Department.

“It’s a big status symbol and it is nice.”

After the 9/11 attacks, Hagin said, an expanded number of aides were given “portal to portal” privileges for security reasons, but that lasted only a few weeks.

And a number of publicly visible aides to Bush were given some Secret Service protection. But Hagin said that amounted only to ensuring that homes were secure and occasional visits by a uniformed patrol car to show a physical presence.

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