SEPTEMBER 13, 2022
LONDON – Ditch the armored limo. Leave the presidential chopper at home.
President Joe Biden and other dignitaries who plan to attend Queen Elizabeth II’s state funeral have been advised by the British government not to take private transportation to London next week and told they will be escorted to the service in buses.
Official planning documents obtained by Politico urge presidents, monarchs and other heads of state to take commercial aircraft to London and wait for their ride to Westminster Abbey, where the solemn ceremony will be held Sept. 19.
Biden on a bus? That won’t happen, said former U.S. officials who have been involved in presidential planning and security.
“I can’t imagine any circumstances where the USSS (Secret Service) would agree to any of that,” said Anita McBride, who was assistant to President George W. Bush and chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush.
The Secret Service declined to comment on the president’s travel arrangements or security measures that will be put in place for his trip.
An unconfirmed report published in The Times of London said Biden would be given special dispensation and would be allowed to take the presidential limo to the funeral, while other world leaders would have to share the bus.
When Biden travels, domestically or abroad, he typically arrives aboard Air Force One. If transportation is needed when the president’s plane lands or circumstances do not allow him to take the aircraft, he travels in the heavily armored black presidential limousine known as The Beast or climbs aboard Marine One, the presidential helicopter.
When former President Donald Trump traveled to Paris in 2018 to observe the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, he came to the commemoration in his armored vehicle, while most other world leaders arrived together in buses. He arrived separately “due to security protocols,” Trump’s spokeswoman said at the time.
In the U.K., it’s not unusual for senior members of the royal family to be bused into crowded areas for important events, said Dai Davies, who was in charge of protecting the queen and royal family from 1995 to 1998.
Even so, “I’m not sure Biden and other world leaders would agree to do that,” Davies said. “For a start, I don’t think we even have any armored buses.”
Britain’s foreign office, which declined to share details about security for the funeral, said about 500 foreign dignitaries were expected at the queen’s funeral. Biden has confirmed that he will attend and will be accompanied by first lady Jill Biden.
The U.S. has access to military bases in the U.K. where Air Force One could land, McBride said. Biden could then take a helicopter to Winfield House, the townhouse in central London that serves as the official residence of the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, she said. From there, she said, he could take the presidential limo to the funeral.
“Honestly,” McBride said, “this may be a case where we have to defer to the Brits and try to mitigate the security concerns, which are, of course, significant to the safety of the American president.”
Joe Lockhart, the White House press secretary under President Bill Clinton, said the president ultimately decides what he will and won’t do.
“The Secret Service can make a very strong recommendation,” Lockhart said. “And the president can decide that he wants to do something different. The service will tell him, you know, you can do it, but we can’t guarantee your safety. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time, the president will accede to the recommendations of the Secret Service. Every once in a while they don’t.”
When King Hassan II of Morocco died, Clinton decided to walk with world leaders and mourners behind the casket, Lockhart said. “The service was not happy at all. It was a kind of a scary situation, but they secured it.”
In planning for the queen’s funeral, senior officials in the U.K.’s foreign office, in conjunction with the police and security services, would determine what protection is feasible, cost-effective and, most important, what can be “sold” to the protection teams of the heads of state, Davies said.
Britain’s home secretary, which is equivalent to the U.S. interior secretary, and MI5, the U.K.’s domestic intelligence agency, along with London’s police commissioner, would have the final say over whether to make exceptions for some world leaders such as Biden for the queen’s funeral, security expert Robert Broadhurst said.
“With Biden, there is that special relationship, and maybe the president of the U.S. carries more risk than others,” said Broadhurst, who was in charge of overall policing for the Summer Olympic games in London in 2022 and handled security for the royal wedding of William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, in 2011.
Using a bus system to take foreign dignitaries to a large-scale event or ceremony is not something most world leaders would expect, but it was used for the Olympics and the royal wedding, Broadhurst said. The buses were taken to a “forward site,” where they were searched for bombs and other dangers – “made clean” – before VIPs boarded from a “safe site,” he said.
The destination site also would be searched. “You’re effectively taking your dignitaries from one clean site to another,” he said. “You need fewer people to protect them on those vehicles.”
The U.K. doesn’t follow the “American model” for policing public events, Broadhurst said.
“The queen, and now the king, travel in open carriages,” he said. “They are not armored and never have been. The crowds line the streets and are less than 3 or 4 yards away from them.”
This approach to security did not change despite at least three assassination attempts on the queen – shooters in London and New Zealand and a plot to derail an Australian train she was on.
Broadhurst described the U.S. approach to security as risk-averse.
“It’s not suited to ceremony,” he said. “It’s suited to the principals, not the public. So the U.S. closes roads, makes sterile zones, keeps the public away so they can’t see what’s going on. … The queen never wanted to be separated from the public in armored vehicles or behind barriers. She wanted to be seen. She understood the risks, and it was the job of the police and others to mitigate those risks.”
Ultimately, he said, the security for the queen’s funeral will be determined by the amount of people who can safely fit into the venue, Westminster Abbey, which stretches across 32,000 square feet and is the burial site to numerous British monarchs and prime ministers.
“The use of buses is simply a logistical exercise,” Broadhurst said. “We do not have sufficient close-protection people or armed officers trained to do this role. So we have to approach it in a different way.”
Given the history of assassinations or attempted assassinations of U.S. presidents, “if I were in charge, I’d definitely make an exception for Biden,” Davies said. “What you don’t want is a 30-car convoy. There’s going to have to be compromise to work out a sensible solution.”
“The American president is arguably the most important man in the world as far as security goes, and you simply can’t afford to have anything happen to him on our soil. It’s a delicate problem,” Davies said. “Other leaders may well have to realize there’s a pecking order, and the president of Luxembourg is just not as important as the president of the U.S.”
Steven Groves, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations chief of staff and a deputy White House press secretary in the Trump administration, said that a president’s safety is never going to be outsourced to an outside organization and that the U.S. and U.K. probably will come to an agreement.
“As part of diplomacy, foreign governments are very interested in presidential visits. They want the president of the United States and the prestige of the head of state visit from the United States,” he said. “They’re very understanding that the president is going to be traveling under their own security blanket, and so they cooperate.
“It’s just the way that the president has traveled for some time, since the president is always going to be a target.”
Another factor to consider: Other world leaders may not be thrilled to be sharing a bus with Biden because of the risks involved, McBride said.
“Do other leaders want to be on a van or bus with the biggest target of all?” she asked. “This is surely complex.”