Like the presidents it has protected in the past, the chief security detail for the Obamas—christened Renegade, Renaissance, Radiance and Rosebud—is primarily white. But Curtis Eldridge is an exception. A nearly 30-year Secret Service veteran who has worked in the White House, vice president’s house and abroad, Eldridge is now the chief of the Secret Service Uniformed Division, running operations for hundreds of officers in the United States. This doesn’t mean the Secret Service is a great place for African Americans—10 years ago, a group of black Secret Service agents filed a high-profile class action lawsuit against the government, alleging discrimination—but the department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Secret Service, says today that one-third of its newest recruits are minorities. And according to Ronald Kessler’s new book, Inside the President’s Secret Service, African Americans have been promoted to higher pay grades more frequently than white agents since 2001.
Key quote: “Always make yourself competitive and remain above reproach.”
Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin III
Lt. Gen. Austin is the No. 2 commanding officer in all of Iraq and the first black general to lead an Army division in combat during the 2003 invasion, during which he earned a Silver Star. Americans of African descent now comprise 12 percent of the Army, compared with 2.5 percent in 1975—the year Austin graduated from West Point. The numbers are lower for the Marines, Navy and Air Force, but black Americans like Austin are today consistently deployed to bases and active military theaters from Iraq to Afghanistan, Germany to Guantanamo Bay. Austin is at the head of a wave of black Americans moving into the officer corps and other management and highly skilled positions. Naturally, there is nowhere to go but up—in 2008, only one of 38 four-star generals or admirals was black. Incentives to enlist—including ROTC college scholarships—are attracting men and women in communities of color. At the same time, recruiting for active duty service and for military reserves has dipped since 2000, when blacks made up 23 percent of Army recruits.
Key quote: “Certainly when you have my job you consider yourself to be a role model for a number of elements in the community, not just African Americans.”
Rogers is a Harvard-trained businesswoman turned White House social secretary who counts herself as a leading light in Washington—but whose job description also requires her to play some heavy-duty defense. During her first official state dinner, three gate-crashing Washington socialites exposed her as a weak link in the chain that keeps the Obamas safe. While Secret Service chief Mark Sullivan has claimed full responsibility for the incident, Rogers appears chastened: At the series of White House holiday parties that followed the security breach, Rogers ditched the couture and donned a headset.
Key quote: Rogers has yet to comment on the party-crashing incident.
The buck stops here. In the Situation Room meeting with his national security team, Obama chastised his deputies for leaving the private citizens as the last line of defense against Abdulmutallab. Speaking to reporters afterward, he sounded irritated. “I will accept that intelligence, by its nature, is imperfect,” he said. “But it is increasingly clear that intelligence was not fully analyzed or fully leveraged. That’s not acceptable, and I will not tolerate it.” As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan show, Obama’s portfolio comprises more than just coordinating the alphabet soup of agencies (TSA, NSA, CIA, FBI, CSS) that are supposed to fight terror. His management of this life and death situation will test his ability to motivate as well as negotiate.
Key quote: “We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense. And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken—you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”
Dayo Olopade is Washington reporter for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.