Friday, November 22, 2013

Half A Century

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of  President John F. Kennedy.  50 years following his presidency, what does the country remember him for?  The Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs Invasion, continued US engagement in the Vietnam War, the famous televised presidential debate with fellow candidate Richard Nixon.
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Yet, perhaps the most significant event of his presidency was in fact his tragic assassination.  The sudden shooting in Dallas, Texas highlighted glaring insufficiencies in presidential protection measures.  Consequently, it is significant how drastically presidential security measures have changed over the last fifty years in response to the assassination.  The inclusion of the Secret Service into the Department of Homeland Security in 2003 points to presidential security (and the security of other key country leaders) as a critical point of the national security agenda.

At the time of JFK's assassination, the president was accompanied by only 28 Secret Service agents.  Additionally, the Secret Service operated on a budget of $5.5 million and employed only 350 agents.  The Service is now allocated $1.6 billion a year for its operations and employs 3,400 agents.  Its jurisdiction has expanded to include visiting heads of state, presidential families, and presidential candidates.  Armored cars and lengthy, detailed contingency plans have replaced open-top convertibles and comparatively minimal planning.

Originally established as a part of the Department of the Treasury in 1865, the Secret Service was tasked with investigating instances of counterfeiting and other cases of fraud.  The division did not begin providing full-time presidential protective services until 1902.  Only two agents were assigned to the White House detail at this time.  Despite the Secret Service assuming these duties in 1902, Congress did not authorize permanent presidential protection until 1913.  In 1951, presidential protection was expanded to include the president's immediate family, the president-elect, and the vice-president.  This expansion illustrates how protection of the president and other leaders slowly increased in priority over time.

The most rapid expansion of the Secret Service occurred as a direct result of the assassination of President Kennedy.  In the years immediately following the assassination, protective services were extended to all former presidents and their spouses for their lifetimes.  Presidential and vice-presidential candidates and nominees were also authorized protection, as were widows of former presidents.  It should also be noted that the lifetime protection extended to former presidents was reduced to 10 years of protective services in 1997.

The assassination of JFK certainly shook the entire country to its core.  Those alive during the assassination vividly remember where they were during the event, much like how the attacks of 9/11 are forever burned into the memories of today's generations.  The resulting policies are indicative of how beloved JFK was by the country, and the value we placed in his leadership.  Technological developments have certainly improved the protection afforded to national leadership; armored vehicles, wireless communication, and the like were certainly not available during JFK's presidency.  But more than technological impediments, presidential travel and events were not planned with the detail that they are today.  Today's Secret Service agents inspect all travel routes of the president before he embarks on the trip, no matter how short the distance.  Lengthy documents are produced, detailing potential threats, detour options, exit strategies, and contingency plans in case of a variety of attacks.  Finally, Secret Service agents themselves receive much more training than they did during JFK's presidency, including rigorous law enforcement training.

As the United States continues to afford more authority to the role of the president, presidential protection has become a vital priority of our national security - the defense of our Commander in Chief, as well as the protection of other critical leaders.  The tragic assassination of JFK, a president so beloved by the people, reminds us of the real threats facing our national leaders and the necessary precautions that must be taken.

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