After JFK: How the Secret Service Has Changed

Kennedy's assassination in 1963 served as the crucible for presidential protection.

The limousine carrying mortally wounded President John F. Kennedy races toward the hospital as Secret service agent Clinton Hill jumps in. (Justin Newman/AP)
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Two seconds after the first shot was fired, Secret Service agent Clint Hill launched himself at the Lincoln Continental convertible carrying the president and the governor of Texas through Dealey Plaza in Dallas. He reached forward to intercept and hold on to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy who, in shock, was crawling across the rear trunk as the car sped away.

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Hill did not have any of the advanced communications equipment that agents today consider as important as the weapons they carry. Instead, during the race to the hospital, he turned and flashed a "thumbs down" sign to the trailing Secret Service car, the standard protocol at the time for relaying that the president was mortally wounded.

The Secret Service had not yet instituted its policies of sending advance teams to local hospitals to coordinate the arrival of the president if he requires urgent medical attention. A trauma physician was not readily available to treat the president during the trip, and no overarching authority was in place to take control of and lock down the crime scene.

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Neither Hill nor his colleagues had attended any of the endless string of advanced schools required for modern agents, from tactical driving to first aid. His training was limited to his time as a counterintelligence agent in the U.S. Army and a short stint as a detective with the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad Corporation before joining the Secret Service in 1958. From there, most of his professional education was gained from on-the-job experience, he says.

"When I came in, I was sworn in. I was presented with my credentials, a gun, a badge, my handcuffs. I was taken to the range, qualified, and that night I was on a protective detail," he says. "That wouldn't happen today."

Secret Service agents reference that day in November 1963 as the single most important turning point for one of the most high profile organizations in the U.S. government, eternally and directly linked to the wellbeing of the most powerful man in the world.

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The Secret Service employed only 269 agents when Hill joined in 1958.

"It was difficult to get in when I came in," he says, quipping that applicants had to wait for someone to either die or retire in order to get a chance to enter the service.

"A guy retired and I got his slot," Hill says.

Five years later, on that street in Dallas in 1963, he was one of only 350 agents operating on a budget of $5.5 million. Hill would witness the subsequent and sweeping changes following the first assassination of a sitting president under the protection of the Secret Service, and string of high-profile public investigations into what went wrong that day.

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"Once people calmed down and said 'Let's not lay blame,' the Secret Service gets a tremendous boost in terms of budget and resources," says Jeffrey Engel, a professor at Southern Methodist University and an expert on security and the presidency.

1968 was a turbulent year that would witness the slayings of presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. The Secret Service employed 600 agents and had a $17 million budget. That ballooned up to 1,500 agents and a $150 million budget in 1981, when John Hinckley, Jr. successfully breached the protective bubble around President Ronald Reagan and shot him outside the Washington Hilton Hotel, almost killing him.

Today there are 3,400 special agents given $1.6 billion per year to spend. They share responsibilities for guarding the president with the section that serves as the White House police force, known as the Uniformed Division. A very select few will enter the elite Presidential Protective Division, which oversees the president's life. The average agent spends five to nine years within the Secret Service working on financial investigations or at its dozens of domestic and international field offices, and on constant rotations from active duty to rigorous training regimens, before they can even begin working on a high-profile detail such as protecting the commander-in-chief.


Corrected on : Corrected, 11/19/13: An earlier version of this article misidentified Jeffrey Engel, a professor at Southern Methodist University.