Recent incidents involving White House security leave me concerned that for some reason the Secret Service is once again behind the threat curve in regard to presidential protection. To assess that concern, its helpful to look back to presidential protection for JFK in 1963. Vince Palamara has demonstrated that during the fall of 1963 there had been some apparently minor enhancements to White House Detail security during presidential trips – the addition of one or two new PRS (protective research services) staff to the traveling White House Security detail (whose jobs remain unclear even now) and additional staff for technical services work – apparently inspection of hotels and other locations for wire taps, bugs, etc. Beyond that, training and preparedness remained the same as they had for years, focused on protection from close up assaults or attacks while the president was exposed to crowds in public appearances. Threats reported to the Secret Service were investigated and then indexed in a central file; agents assigned to presidential travel would check that file for outstanding threat suspects in a given city. It appears that little thought was given to the possibility that individuals posing a threat might be mobile. Protection also seems to have been very suspect oriented, the idea of a group being a threat seems only to have extended to demonstrations and protests, not to actual physical attacks. That explains why the majority of the threat protection in Dallas, Texas was oriented towards protests at JFK’s Trade Center speech.
The lack of any serous new protection measures in 1963 might seem like simple oversight if we had not become aware of some very specific threats that the Secret Service was aware of and others which they may well have been – but where the relevant records have been destroyed (some as recently as the 1990’s). Perhaps the most outstanding example is a threat passed from the FBI to the Secret Service relating to remarks by James Milteer that various militant right wing groups were actually preparing to attack the President and that they would do so with long range sniper fire from concealed positions in high rise buildings during a motorcade. That report should have immediately surfaced the fact that close in crowd protection was not nearly enough for presidential security. Beyond that we know that FBI informants were generating memos about ultra right rifle teams being formed and trained to attack the President. We also know that during JFK’s trip to Miami that fall, threat reports out of Miami suggested that militant Cuban exiles might use explosives devices, either planted or literally thrown at the President. On that same trip, Secret Service personnel panicked when items were indeed tossed into the Presidential limo – that turned out to be only candy but the risk of explosives tossed out of a crowd should have been clear. There appear to have been other threat reports as well, several of them suggesting rifle or bomb attacks on the president. We know that one individual in Chicago was investigated in regard to a potential rifle attack that fall and more importantly, it appears that another report related to the same trip, came from the FBI and was taken very seriously by the Secret Service – so seriously that personnel from the Secret Service and FBI field office stonewalled investigators from the Assassinations Records Review Board in the 1990’s and refused to discuss it. At that point in time, against orders, the Secret Service destroyed several files relating to presidential travel in the fall of 1963.
The point in all that history is that there were new types of threats emerging, ones which the standard security practices were not capable of dealing with – as sadly proved in Dallas. Yet the Secret Service made no obvious (or known) changes in security protocol or practices to address such threats. Whether it was due to a lack of headquarters intelligence coordination, the lack of a threat analysis group or simple inertia is impossible to say. However, when we fast forward to 2014, when such things are supposedly in place and a major priority years after the attacks of 2001 what do we find? We find that an individual with a history as a threat to the president can simply jump a White House fence and make it through an unlocked front door into the entry area of the presidential residence. Does the fact that nobody routinely locked the front door to the White House cause you to shake your head? Is the lack of any security immediately outside that front door hard to understand? And how do you feel about the Secret Service response that they are “now” going to start observing passerby’s for individuals that don’t look like tourists? Did they not get the message about radical Islamists wearing concealed explosive vests? Do they think experienced attackers will wear conspicuous clothing or carry signs? We have numerous recent examples of “wearable explosives”, some quite powerful. And of “belly bombs” which could be powerful enough to collapse the entry portico – such weapons have already been used overseas. Did the Secret Service really not anticipate suicide bombers? Beyond that, the same week we have a driver, again with a threat history, refusing to stop at the entrance – while the barrier might well have stopped his vehicle, given the amount of extremely high explosive that can be placed in a car trunk or built into the vehicle – not to mention a van, what would be the propaganda impact of an explosion taking out the street facing wall of the White House.
Perhaps most strikingly, the two incidents occurred within days of the President effectively declaring war on ISIS and radical Islamists anywhere who might be preparing attacks on Americans domestically or overseas. Did the Secret Service miss the fact that the nation had effectively gone to war? That may sound harsh but certainly in regard to White House security it really stretches the imagination to understand how front door remained unlocked following the President’s televised speeches – and the resultant personal threats from ISIS only days before. If the Secret Service was behind the threat curve in 1963, it appears – at least in terms of White House security – to have been even further behind in September, 2014. We can only hope that they catch up really fast…..