How the assassination of President Kennedy changed executive protection

Fifty years ago today, Americans everywhere were in a state of shock after learning of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas. Although much of the attention in the immediate aftermath of the shooting centered on the motives of gunman Lee Harvey Oswald, the tragedy would forever change the way the U.S. Secret Service protects the president.

“Anytime the head of state is attacked and injured, or God forbid killed, it’s a game changer. There‘s no other way to say it,” said Robert Oatman, president of Maryland-based executive protection firm R.L. Oatman & Associates. “I think it changed the Secret Service and its’ methodologies without any hesitation. After that the president never, at least to my knowledge, ever rode with the top down in a vehicle.” 

According to former Secret Service Agent Bill Warren, who spent more than 20 years with the agency and helped protect six different presidents from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton, the Kennedy assassination marked the point in time where the security recommendations of the Secret Service superseded the wants of the president’s staff.

“At that time, the staff pretty much ran the show as far as what level of protection they would allow us to give the president,” Warren explained. “Being a politician, they want to be with the people, they want to be up close and personal because they’re constantly striving to keep their job and that’s opposed to what security wants for the protectee. Back then, for the Dallas motorcade, the (secret) service recommended that they put a bubble top on the convertible and the staff shot it down. They thought that would make him look too distant.”

Despite the risks, Warren said that these types of issues, such as when a president wants to exit his armored vehicle to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue for an inauguration, are still a source of consternation for the Secret Service. “From a security point of view, if we could put (the president) in a Lexan bubble and keep him there for the entire time he’s in the White House, that would make security happy,” Warren said. “But, they are politicians and they need to get out.”

Oatman, who is one of the nation’s leading experts on executive protection and has authored several books on the subject, said that one of the critical components to protecting high-value targets – whether it be in the public or private sector – is having the right intelligence which can create a clearer picture of what the threats are.

“I think another part to that is having dedicated people that are continuously switched on. This is something that I teach and I really stay very focused on. These terrible incidents are over in seconds, so my premise on this, which is the way probably most (protection professionals) think, that it’s a serious, serious job,” Oatman added. “You’re protecting people from all kinds of various events, but the worst thing in the world is to lose somebody by assassination or otherwise, so to me it’s just being focused and paying attention to all of the details. It’s not like you’re protecting a building and you can put up fences and guards and all of those things, we’re in a constantly moving environment.” 

In the 50 years since Kennedy was shot, Warren said that the tactics employed by the Secret Service have been stepped up dramatically and include such things as counter-sniper teams and extensive route security measures.

“It’s an ongoing thing. It keeps changing; every year we come with new scenarios because the threat keeps changing,” said Warren. “Now, we have improvised explosive devices and rockets that are available to terrorists… so the level of protection that we have now has to evolve to follow that threat level.” 

Oatman pointed out that another one of the big differences in today’s threat landscape from the early 1960s, is the way in which technology has evolved with the Internet and keeping up threats that can now be made via social media.  

“I worry more about the lone gunman, and I really do believe this, that the more people can surveil, the more they can spend hours figuring out your comings and goings from your residence to your office to the travel that you take, the real question is are you up to the game?” said Oatman. “I don’t think anyone can do this without the right training and we emphasize that you really have to understand the dynamics of executive protection from all aspects. We put so much emphasis on our advances, doing our homework ahead of time which is as important as getting the right driver with the right security training that understands the kinds of issues that could end up being disastrous.”

Although the lone gunman remains a substantial threat, Warren said he worries more about those would-be assassins who are willing to kill people indiscriminately in an attempt to hit their target.

“The geo-political environment that we’re in now has changed the game plans a lot. The sophistication of the weaponry has changed how we do and what we do a lot,” said Warren. “We’ve had to make a lot of changes and we’ve still got a long way to go. We haven’t reached nirvana yet.

Both Warren and Oatman agree that the biggest thing that executive protection professionals have to avoid is becoming complacent in their duties.

“The protection professional has to be vigilant 24/7 – whether they are working with the protectee or not working with the protectee – they’ve got to be aware of the situation and environment around them,” said Warren. “A lot of times when you get too complacent in your job is when you make a mistake. Unfortunately, the person that’s out there that may be planning something is watching you as well as watching the protectee. The best countermeasure of all is unpredictability. Always break your routine up like the good old saying, ‘throw the jackal off by doing something different each time.’”  

“You can’t fall into complacency. You have to be on-game every single time,” emphasized Oatman. “It’s all about the details and I believe that failures are normally the result of skipping over things. You have to go out and practice and if you don’t have it right, then you need to go back to the drawing board and get it right. Too many people think this is a no-brainer kind of profession and they couldn’t be more wrong.”

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