The Kennedy legacy for the Secret Service 50 years later: ‘We failed’

Devin Dwyer, Richard Coolidge and Jordyn Phelps
Power Players

Power Players

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy still haunts the U.S. Secret Service 50 years on.

“Quite obviously, we failed,” Secret Service deputy director A.T. Smith told “Power Players” during an exclusive interview this week inside the agency’s headquarters, located a few blocks from the White House.

“At the time, it seemed like we had done all that we could do. But in the end, we didn't do enough because we did lose a president, and that is not what coincides with our protective mission,” Smith said.

While the agency has had a near-perfect record of presidential protection since 1963, Smith said the Kennedy anniversary remains a “significant,” if uncomfortable, moment for reflection every year.

Since Kennedy’s time, the Secret Service has undergone dramatic changes, some prompted by the Warren Commission Report, others by Congress. The agency has added countersniper units, intelligence analysts, assault teams and a technical security division to address threats from explosive devices.

Its budget has grown from a few million dollars in 1963 to more than a billion last year. Its ranks have swelled to more than 7,000 agents and staff.

While the threat from snipers and gunmen remains very real, Smith said today that chemical and biological weapons and improvised explosive devices were the “primary focus” of Secret Service efforts to prevent a plot against the president.

“Chemical attacks or anthrax, things that we saw somewhat in the wake of post 9/11, because those are the kinds of things where just a very small amount of a substance introduced into a place can cause great harm,” Smith said. “Also explosives, not only massive type explosives we see in other parts of the world but certainly IEDs, the improvised devices.”

Still, Smith acknowledged, there are times when the president is still vulnerable to attack. Since Kennedy’s death, there have five direct assaults on a president, according to the Congressional Research Service. All failed.

“No matter how hard we try to keep the president or the vice president under constant cover or in that limousine, there's going to also be times when he's outside and he's exposed to the general public,” he said. “We try our very best … to make sure we’ve done everything we can to prevent an incident.”

That effort includes taking every potential threat seriously, even those that may appear to be more humorous than threatening, Smith said.

“Maybe, maybe someone's in a bar, and they've had too much to drink and they don't necessarily agree with one of our protectees politically and they'll make statements that the next morning when they're sober they wish they had not said,” he said. “They’re there with Secret Service agents talking to them the next day, and we’re very serious.”

To find out more about how the Secret Service protects the president, and to see some of the assassination-related artifacts kept in the Secret Service’s exclusive museum, check out this episode of “Power Players.”

ABC News’ Alexandra Dukakis, Tom Thornton, Tom D’Annibale and Gary Rosenberg contributed to this episode.