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White House defends high bills for Africa trip

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The White House Friday defended  the first  family’s  upcoming weeklong trip to Africa, which could cost  taxpayers up to  $100  million, as “great bang for our buck.”

“There  will be a great bang for our buck for being in Africa  because when  you  travel to regions like Africa that don’t get a lot of  presidential   attention, you tend to have very longstanding and  long-running impact  from the  visit,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national   security adviser to  President Obama.

The Obamas’ trip, at a time of “sequestration” budget cuts, will  take them  to Senegal, Tanzania and South  Africa from June 26 to July 3.   Citing a confidential planning document, the Washington Post reported   that the  trip will cost between $60 million to $100 million.

The  excursion will involve military cargo planes airlifting 56  support   vehicles, including 14 limousines, and three trucks to carry  bulletproof  glass  panels to cover the windows where the first family is  set to  stay. A Navy  aircraft carrier or amphibious ship with a fully  staffed  medical trauma center  will be stationed offshore in case of an   emergency.

Fighter  jets will fly in shifts to provide around-the-clock  protection over  the  president’s airspace. The trip will reportedly  involve hundreds of  Secret Service agents.

The  president and first lady Michelle  Obama also had planned to  take a  safari in Tanzania, which reportedly would have required a   special  counterassault team to carry sniper rifles in the event of a  threat  from  wild animals. But the safari was canceled in favor of a  trip to Robben   Island off the coast of Cape Town, South  Africa, where  Nelson Mandela  was  held as a political prisoner.

Mr.  Rhodes said Mr.  Obama already has traveled extensively to Asia  and to  Latin America, and  he said some people think the president’s  trip to  Africa “is overdue.”

“Africa’s  a critically important region of the world,” he said.  “This is a  deeply  substantive trip and one that has been highly  anticipated on the   continent. And, frankly, there’s been great  disappointment that the  president  hasn’t traveled to Africa until this  point, other than a brief  stop in  Ghana.”

Presidential  travel is expensive; the cost alone of operating Air  Force One  is about  $180,000 per flight hour. President Clinton’s trip  to Africa in 1998   cost about $42.8 million. President George W. Bush  made two trips to  Africa  during his two terms, although cost estimates  aren’t available  for those  visits.

Mr.  Obama is expected to spend part of  the trip emphasizing the  importance  of global health programs, including  HIV/AIDS prevention.

“We  have huge interests there,” Mr. Rhodes said. “You’ve got some  of the  fastest growing economies in Africa. You’ve got  a massively  growing  youth population. You’ve got key security and  counterterrorism  issues  that we work on with African countries.”

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