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The Warren Commission Report: How the Kennedy Assassination Changed the US Secret Service

September 23, 2019 | Authored by Lauren Sydney

On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated while riding in a car through downtown Dallas. It was an event that shocked the nation and became a cultural touchstone for a generation of Americans who can vividly remember where they were when they heard the news. In the months following the assassination, there was a desperate need to understand what had happened, why it happened, and if it could have been prevented.

In an attempt to answer these difficult questions, President Lyndon B. Johnson created the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy. Informally known as the Warren Commission, it was named after its chair, Chief Justice Earl Warren of the Supreme Court. The Warren Commission convened a series of meetings and hearings to collect testimonies and hear from experts; on September 24, 1964, they published a report on their findings, which became the official U.S. government position on the events of the Kennedy assassination and the subsequent death of Lee Harvey Oswald. Below is pictured a copy of the Warren Report in the National Law Enforcement Museum’s Collection, signed by committee member and then-House Minority Leader and future president Gerald Ford.


Collection of the National Law Enforcement Museum, 2008.82.8

In the years since the Warren Report was published, there has been ongoing speculation, criticism, and controversy about its findings. One of the ways the Warren Report made an immediate and long-term impact was on U.S. Secret Service procedures. Since President Theodore Roosevelt, the Secret Service was charged with the protection of the president and the First Family. But President Kennedy who was personable, loved large crowds, and enjoyed being up-close-and-personal with the public, [1] created security challenges, and in some respects the Secret Service was not equipped to meet them. The report states, “[The President’s] very position as representative of the people prevents him from effectively shielding himself from the people. He cannot and will not take the precautions of a dictator or a sovereign. Under our system, measures must be sought to afford security without impeding the President’s performance of his many functions.” [2]

During the visit to Dallas, President Kennedy insisted on riding in an open car without any Secret Service agents in the vehicle; the route took them through the center of Dallas, where crowds lined the streets and cheering supporters occupied every window. Retired Secret Service agent Clint Hill, who was part of the motorcade that fateful day in the First Lady’s protective detail, describes what it was like:

Retired Secret Service agent Clint Hill describes driving through Dallas with the Presidential motorcade

Based on their investigation, the Warren Commission determined that the Secret Service and other federal agencies, including the FBI, needed a “sweeping revision” going forward in order to better protect the president and anticipate threats. [3] The report included concerns about the agency’s advance intelligence work on potential threats to the president, as well as the lack of written guidelines on advance preparations and coordinating with local law enforcement. While the motorcade route and the stops along it were well-coordinated, the buildings lining the route were not searched and no counter-measures were put in place to prevent a shooting. “Examination of these procedures shows that in most respects they were well conceived and ably executed by the personnel of the Service. Against the background of the critical events of November 22, however, certain shortcomings and lapses from the high standards which the Commission believes should prevail in the field of Presidential protection are evident.” [4]

The report found no issue with the conduct of the Secret Service agents present at the assassination; “Their actions demonstrate that the President and the Nation can expect courage and devotion to duty from the agents of the Secret Service.“ [5] However, the Commission noted that the agency was under-staffed and under-funded and thus unable to complete its mission of security to the best possible standard. It recommended an increase in personnel and budget to ensure the agency was able to fully prepare for presidential excursions.

The presidential vehicle and follow-up car in Dallas, 1963 (Public domain; first published on 24 November 1963)

The Secret Service took these concerns seriously and major changes to the agency and its procedures were implemented. A larger budget and the creation of hundreds more staff positions allowed the agency to expand and improve upon its protection details and advance preparation. By the time the Warren Report was published, the agency had already completely revamped its presidential motorcade requirements to address the vulnerabilities that were exploited in Dallas. New oversight committees and better coordination with other Federal agencies and local law enforcement were also put into place to ensure that the Secret Service would be capable of providing the president with the best possible protection. [6]

Today, the Secret Service’s presidential detail, officially named the Secret Service Presidential Protective Division, is a well-oiled machine; every move is meticulously planned, and all contingencies are carefully documented, even for short trips around Washington, DC. [7] The days of presidents riding in open cars waving to gathered crowds are largely behind us; modern presidential vehicles are so heavily armored and well-protected that President Barack Obama’s limousine was famously nicknamed “The Beast.” Agents assigned to the president’s detail train regularly and extensively for all sorts of scenarios, and access to the president has become much more difficult for the average American. [8] The Secret Service continues to find new ways to improve its protection of the president; as the Warren Report advises, “If the protective job is well done, its performance will be evident only in the unexceptional fact of its success.” [9]

Lauren Sydney is the Director of Collections and Registration at the National Law Enforcement Museum.

Want to learn more?
The entire Warren Report is available via the National Archives’ website.
Clint Hill, the retired Secret Service agent, has written several books on his time with the Kennedy White House, including the assassination. You can learn more about them on his website. Hill’s entire interview, including the full assassination story, can be found on the NLEM Youtube channel.

Citations
[1] Naylor, Brian. 2013. “How Kennedy’s Assassination Changed the Secret Service.” All Things Considered. National Public Radio, November 7.

[2] Report of the Warren Commission On the Assassination of President Kennedy. [1st ed.]. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1964. Chapter 8, p. 427.

[3] “F.B.I. IS CRITICIZED; Security Steps Taken by Secret Service Held Inadequate,” New York Times, September 28, 1964.

[4] Report of the Warren Commission. Chapter 8, p. 445.

[5] Ibid., Chapter 8, p. 454.

[6] Naylor, 2013.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Silverlieb, Aaron. “The day that changed presidential security forever.” CNN, March 30, 2011. Accessed September 18, 2019. https://www.cnn.com/2011/POLITICS/03/30/hinckley.presidential.protection/index.html

[9] Report of the Warren Commission. Chapter 8, p. 427.


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