The Secret Service has been part of American history since its creation in 1865, but it wasn't until after President John F. Kennedy's assassination, on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas, that the organization began to expand and evolve into the high-tech, massive, secret operation that it is today.
As the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination approaches, we look back on the Secret Service, and see how the organization -- tasked with the responsibility of protecting the president -- has evolved since that fateful day in November.
|1. No More Riding in Open Cars|
On Nov. 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy waved to spectators from the back of a midnight blue 1961 Lincoln four-door convertible in Dallas. Kennedy's presidential limo, with a Secret Service code name SS 100X, is a far cry from President Obama's current mode of ground transportation, a high-tech, high-security limo nicknamed "The Beast."
According to Christopher Wynn, a writer for Dallas News, "when three shots rang out at Dealey Plaza, Kennedy and all of the passengers in the limousine were completely exposed. The decision had been made that morning to not put on the car's plastic bubble top. What the public did not know was that the top was neither bulletproof nor even bullet-resistant."
Though Kennedy's presidential limo, famously dubbed the "Death Car" by the Associated Press, was sleek and stylish, it was not equipped with many security features. In addition to the removal top, the Lincoln was equipped with two radio telephones, flashing red lights, four retractable steps for Secret Service agents, and a hydraulic rear seat that could be raised ten-and-a-half inches to elevate the president.
For more details about the car, click here.
After Kennedy's assassination, presidential ground transportation greatly evolved. The most high tech and secure vehicle in presidential history belongs to the current commander in chief. Though most of the details of "The Beast" are classified, it is known that the president's limo is equipped with 8-inch thick plates of armor that are capable of stopping an IED, 5-inch multi-layer windows that make the vehicle's door's weight equal to the weight of a door on a 757 airplane, a night vision system, on-board systems for fresh oxygen and even a blood bank, located in the trunk, stocked with the president's blood type.
|2. The End of the Presidential 'Stroll'|
Before JFK's assassination, presidents had much more freedom to travel around the capital without extreme protective detail. President Coolidge was known for his regular constitutionals around Washington, D.C., most often only accompanied by one body guard. Additionally, President Truman was also famous for his frequent walks around the capital with limited protective detail.
But Northeastern University Political Science Professor Robert Gilbert notes that after Kennedy's assassination, unaccompanied, unplanned strolls were no longer an option for presidents.
"Kennedy's assassination seemed to be the defining moment, perhaps because film clips of the event -- shown repeatedly on television -- were so horrific and traumatizing," Gilbert said. "Now, presidents typically stroll nowhere except at Camp David and they no longer ride in open cars. The distance between the public and its leader has grown significantly -- but for good reason."
That doesn't mean that a presidential "stroll" never happens, they're just incredibly rare. In 2008 and 2012, President Obama and the First Lady took a very public, and protected, stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue after the inauguration.
|3. Lifetime Coverage|
As a direct result of Kennedy's assassination, Congress passed legislation in 1963 to continue to protect Jackie Kennedy and her children for two additional years, even though they were no longer in the White House. This extended form of protection was new for former first families. Before Kennedy's assassination, families of the president were not afforded this protection after they left the White House.
In 1965, Congress again expanded the protection for former presidents and first ladies, creating a law that authorized protection of former presidents and their spouses during their entire lifetime and their minor children until age 16, unless they decline protection, according to the Secret Service website.
These laws were changed by Congress in 1997, when a law was created that afforded presidents and their families, serving after 1997, only 10 years of Secret Service protection.
That law would have made President Clinton the last president to receive lifetime protection. But, in 2012, President Obama signed the Former Presidents Protection Act of 2012, that reversed the previous law that limited Secret Service protection. Under the law that Obama signed, former President George W. Bush and future former presidents will receive Secret Service protection for the rest of their lives. Children of former presidents up to the age of 16 are assured protection under the new law.
|4. Access Denied|
In the book "The Kennedy Detail" and in a series of interviews with the Discovery Channel, former Secret Service agent Gerald Blaine revealed how much of a challenge it was to protect the charismatic Kennedy, specifically on that fateful day in November.
"President Kennedy made a decision, and he politely told everybody, 'You know, we're starting the campaign now, and the people are my asset,'" Blaine said. "And so, we all of a sudden understood. It left a firm command to stay off the back of the car."
The 35th president had a knack for playing to a crowd. He was often seen standing in an open car, waving to crowds, and shaking many hands of spectators.
Shaking hands and kissing babies still plays a role in presidential politics today, but a request for the Secret Service to back off -- like the one Kennedy made to his security detail in Dallas -- would not be granted.
For example, when President Obama or his family return home to Chicago nowadays, residents can expect a large security bubble to travel with him. According to the ABC Chicago affiliate, that includes long road closures, more police and Secret Service presence and extended perimeters of protections.
|5. Not Your Father's Secret Service|
During fiscal year 1963 (July 1, 1962 to June 30, 1963) the Secret Service had an average strength of 513, of whom 351 were special agents. Average strength of the White House Police during the year was 179.
Today, the Secret Service employs approximately 3,200 special agents, 1,300 Uniformed Division officers, and more than 2,000 other technical, professional and administrative support personnel.