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How Kennedy's Assassination Changed The Secret Service

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How Kennedy's Assassination Changed The Secret Service

How Kennedy's Assassination Changed The Secret Service

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President Obama traveled to Dallas and back, yesterday, a trip that like the scores he makes each year, seem routine. But to those in charge of presidential security there is no such thing as routine, not since the November trip Dallas by President John F. Kennedy. Two weeks from tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of that day.

As NPR's Brian Naylor reports, Kennedy's assassination forever changed the agency tasked with protecting the president, the U.S. Secret Service.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: We've all seen the images, President Kennedy, Jackie beside him, Texas Governor John Connally and his wife, waving, riding through the streets of Dallas in an open Lincoln. In retrospect, it looks terribly innocent and naive. Less than a year after Lee Harvey Oswald fired from the 6th floor of the Texas School Book Depository, the Warren Commission, formed by President Lyndon Johnson, completed its investigation into that day.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: To the White House in Washington comes the final verdict on the fateful tragedy which engulfed the nation 10 months ago. U.S. Chief Justice Earl Warren is the bearer of the sad epilogue.

NAYLOR: The commission found what it politely called, quote, "certain shortcomings and lapses from the high standards, which the commission believes should prevail in the field of president protection." Many dealt with the Secret Service's advance work. No one thought to check the buildings along the motorcade route. There were no formal procedures for working with local law enforcement agencies.

Marc Ambinder is editor-at-large of The Week and has written about the Secret Service. Ambinder says the Service of 50 years ago was ill-prepared to deal with the gregarious JFK.

MARC AMBINDER: It's a combination of the fact that the Secret Service playbook was outdated, and they had never really encountered a president before John F. Kennedy who loved to mix it up and loved to get in the middle of huge crowds and fed off the energy of huge crowds.

NAYLOR: After the assassination, the Secret Service made some immediate changes. Open limousines were out. And it began taking a more aggressive approach to its advance work.

Special Agent Brian Leary serves as a spokesman for the agency.

BRIAN LEARY: Not criticizing what happened in 1963, but I think it's fair to say the protections changed quite a bit and how we do things on a day-to-day basis.

NAYLOR: The Service began staffing up. There were just 28 agents on the ground in Dallas in 1963 and the agency's budget was $5.5 million. Last year, the budget was more than $1.6 billion. Over the years, Leary says the Service has established counter sniper units, assault teams and surveillance units.

LEARY: So as the threat has evolved and has changed, Secret Service has changed with it.

NAYLOR: In fact, it's hard to compare the bubble that surrounds President Obama with the Kennedy-era security. Now, anyone with hoping to get close to the president has to go through a metal detector and a bag check. The president rides in a limousine so armored it's referred to as The Beast.

Marc Ambinder, who has been allowed behind the scenes of a number of Service operations, says the advance work for just one short motorcade is meticulous.

AMBINDER: Simply that one movement, which may take 10 minutes, the Secret Service advance machine puts together an enormous, thick presidential transportation manual just for that one movement that's maybe 60 to 70 pages long; and has information about relocation sites and contingencies, and what happens if the motorcade needs to be diverted, and what happens if there is a chemical attack on the motorcade - just in that one movement.

NAYLOR: Special Agent Leary says the Secret Service tries to apply the lessons from Dallas and subsequent attempts on the president's life each day.

LEARY: I think there's certainly a recognition that that was a tragic day for the nation and a very difficult day for the Secret Service. But with all of that, whether that was the assassination of President Kennedy or the attempted assassination of President Reagan, Secret Service is trying to learn from those events.

NAYLOR: And as if protecting the president's life wasn't enough, over the years the Service has been given the added duty of guarding presidential families, visiting heads of state and presidential candidates. And that's all in addition to its original task, investigating counterfeiters.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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