After JFK, a Secret Service transformed

Olivier Knox
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President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama ride in the presidential limousine during the 57th Presidential Inauguration parade Monday, Jan. 21, 2013, in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

The date most closely associated with the Secret Service probably isn’t its founding in 1865. It’s not 1902, when it took over full-time protection of the president following William McKinley’s assassination. It’s probably Nov. 22, 1963 — when John F. Kennedy was killed, shot dead as he rode in a convertible with the top down, his government bodyguards powerless to help.

“It isn’t something that we’re marking. It wasn’t a good day for us or for the country,” Secret Service spokesman Brian Leary told Yahoo News. “It was a dark day.”

But 50 years later, there’s no mistaking that JFK’s death — and the June 1968 killing of Robert Kennedy, and the March 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan — utterly transformed the small agency with one of the government’s biggest jobs.

If the White House is, in the tongue-in-cheek words of several presidents, “the crown jewel of the federal penal system,” that would make the Secret Service the country’s most elite prison guards.

But in 1963, there were only 350 Secret Service agents, and the agency had a budget of $5.5 million. Those numbers have climbed to 3,500 agents and $1.5 billion today.

JFK’s ill-fated ride in a convertible with the top down is almost unthinkable today. President Barack Obama’s limousine — an armored monster often dubbed “The Beast” — is more of a limo-shaped tank and is reportedly outfitted with its own oxygen supply and the supplies necessary to do a presidential blood transfusion.

The vehicle’s fuel tank is sealed in foam so that it won’t explode, according to a Discovery Channel special. It’s sealed against biological or chemical attack. The doors weigh as much as those on a Boeing 757.

Yes, Obama stepped out of The Beast on his Inauguration Day 2013 drive from the Capitol to the White House. Those moments partly rely on the element of surprise — potential threats don’t know when the opportunity will arise. One past member of presidential protective details said the Secret Service’s “collective blood pressure spikes” on those occasions.

(For an eye-opening look at the other vehicles in Obama’s motorcade, and their functions, see this.)

In 1965, the Secret Service acquired a “technical security division” with the task of ensuring that wherever the president goes — whether it’s Ohio or China or Dallas, Texas — he will be safe from bombs and chemical, biological or radiological hazards as well as espionage. (Counterspying got a big boost in 1996 with the creation of a specialized division.)

That was also the year that the agency started protecting former presidents and their spouses and kids until they turn 16.

After Robert Kennedy’s slaying, the Secret Service got another mission: protecting presidential candidates. (Political reporters now frequently treat the arrival of the Secret Service as a symbol of political viability.)

Eight (!) years after JFK was killed in Dallas came the countersniper teams, still spotted at presidential events, scanning the landscape with binoculars. In 1979 came the elite Counter Assault Teams (CATs), which ride in the motorcade and travel with the president. In 1992, the Uniformed Division of the Secret Service got an Emergency Response Team – the black-clad, body-armored commandos who deploy across the White House grounds (thanks to an alert and knowledgeable reader for pointing out this writer’s error in confusing the two)..

The 1981 attempt to kill Reagan brought more changes. Presidential routine involved “covered arrivals” — the limousine coming to a halt under a tent, shielded from prying eyes, making it hard to time a potential shot.

The Secret Service started assigning an agent to stick with the press corps that accompanies the president — not for the safety of journalists, of course, but to ensure that “the media was separate from the public at all times,” Leary said.

Magnetometers became more the rule at events overseen by the Secret Service. Throughout the 2012 cycle, Secret Service-run metal detectors logged 2,945,830 people going into events tied to the presidential race, including the national political party conventions. That's roughly the population of Mississippi or Arkansas.
Even with all of their training, and all of their modern equipment, sometimes the system fails. In July 2003, a stowaway boarded the charter plane carrying the press from stop to stop during one of then-President George W. Bush's trips to Africa. The man was detained without (further) incident.

And in December 2008, a journalist hurled first one shoe, then the other, at Bush during a press conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq. Bush dodged and then joked about the attack, which appears in the official White House transcript as "(audience interruption)." That lapse wasn't the service's fault ("What were we going to do? Have everyone take off their clothes?" one insider asked). When overseas, agents have to defer largely to the home team and its security precautions.

Obama hasn't been spared high-profile snafus: In November 2009, a couple crashed a White House state dinner.

But you don't hear so much about success stories ... and agents say that much remains out of their control.

On one overseas trip — an unannounced stop by Vice President Dick Cheney in Pakistan — a false rumor spread that one news agency had reported his pending arrival, stripping away the element of surprise. As Air Force Two headed into Pakistani air space, one Secret Service agent approached a reporter from the wrongly accused outlet.

"You're not getting us all killed, are you?" he asked.