Today there are hearings in Washington, D.C. trying to explain how an armed man got past the Secret Service and into the White House. The media is filled with outrage at such a glaring breakdown in security in what most consider the elite security unit in our country. To the average American it must seem the greatest embarrassment in the history of the Secret Service. At least, that's how it surely will look today in Congress. Especially when they make a big deal out of the fact that the initial response of the Secret Service was to praise some of its people for outstanding work.
But the fact is, this event isn't the worst day in the history of the Secret Service. We have written this before, but in the context of the times it is worth repeating. The worst day in the history of the Secret Service was Nov. 22, 1963, when it went on vacation the day President John F. Kennedy was murdered in Dallas. Most people don't know that. The impression reinforced over the years is that of agent Clint Hill running to jump on the rear of JFK's car to protect Jackie Kennedy. The Secret Service seemed heroic. Clint Hill certainly was.
The facts are different. It took almost a half century, but revelations in recent extraordinary books tell us what some Secret Service people knew 50 years ago. However, they remained silent or were ignored by investigators. James W. Douglass, in JFK and the Unspeakable gives the details. Normal precautions to protect a president in public were absent. There were no snipers on buildings surrounding the motorcade, no surveillance to keep people from windows overlooking the street. Agents normally alongside the limousine were pulled off. The Dallas police took almost no part in the security operation.
Most remarkable, is that there were no Secret Service agents in the most dangerous location, Dealey Plaza, where the shooting occurred. Several people lurking behind the fence on the “grassy knoll” identified themselves as Secret Service when confronted immediately after the shooting, but they were obviously part of the plot. The Secret Service said it had nobody at that location. These phony agents may have been the shooters. Years later we learn that when some Secret Service people asked what was going on, they were told it was the President’s wishes. Others heard simply that their unusual instructions came from Washington.
None of this was known at the time. Had it been, the nation would have been shocked. The notion of a conspiracy would not have been dismissed, as it was initially. It would not have taken decades, and the slow building of a mountain of information to convince most people that the Warren Commission got it wrong, and got it wrong on purpose.
There are two major differences between the recent Secret Service performance and the Kennedy Assassination. Almost surely, these deplorable gaffs of recent days were not intentional, nor part of any plot. What happened 50 years ago almost surely was part of a plan. Secondly, it took only weeks for the truth of recent actions to become known. In the other case, it has taken 50 years, and some people still don’t buy it.