JFK: Why his death would never have happened today

 First lady Jacqueline Kennedy leans over the president as Secret Service agent Clint Hill pushes her back to her seat.  Picture: AP /James W. Altgens

THE date most closely associated with the Secret Service isn’t its founding, in 1865. It’s not 1902, when it assumed full-time protection of the president, following William McKinley’s assassination.

It’s Nov 22, 1963 — the killing of John F. Kennedy, shot as he rode in a convertible with the top down, his bodyguards powerless.

“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 said. “It was a dark day.”

JFK’s death — and the June, 1968 killing of Robert Kennedy, and the March, 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan — transformed the small agency with one of the government’s biggest jobs.

In 1963, there were only 350 Secret Service agents, and the agency had a budget of $5.5m. Now there are 3,500 agents and the budget is $1.5bn.

JFK’s ride in a convertible with the top down is unthinkable today. President Barack Obama’s limousine — an armoured monster dubbed ‘The Beast’ — is a limo-shaped tank, outfitted with its own oxygen supply and the equipment to do a presidential blood transfusion. The fuel tank is sealed in foam so that it won’t explode. 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 car on his inauguration-day drive from the Capitol to the White House. The surprise protected against threats. One past member of presidential protective details said the Secret Service’s “collective blood pressure spikes” on those occasions.

In 1965, the Secret Service acquired a ‘technical security division’ to ensure that wherever the president goes — whether it’s Ohio or China or Dallas, Texas — he will be safe from bombs, chemical, biological or radiological hazards, and espionage (counter-spying became a specialised division in1996.)

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

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

Eight years after JFK was killed came the counter-sniper teams, still spotted at presidential events, scanning the landscape with binoculars. In 1979 came the Counter-Assault Teams (CAT), the black-clad, body-armoured commandos who deploy across the White House grounds.

The 1981 attempt to kill Reagan brought more changes. Presidential routine became “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 assign an agent to the press corps that accompanies the president — not for journalists’ safety, but to ensure that “the media was separate from the public at all times,” Leary said.

In 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.

Even with their training, and their modern equipment, 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.

In December, 2008, a journalist hurled two shoes at Bush, during a press conference with Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, in Iraq. Bush dodged, and joked about the attack, which is 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 to the home team and its security precautions.

Obama hasn’t been spared high-profile incidents: In November 2009, a couple crashed a White House state dinner. But you don’t hear so much about success stories ... and agents say much remains out of their control.

On one overseas trip — an unannounced stop by vice-president Dick Cheney, in Pakistan — a false rumour 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.

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