50 Years After JFK: Protecting the President in 2013

Nov 21, 2013 at 7:54 AM ET

Since JFK’s assassination 50 years ago, plenty of us—myself included—have wondered: Could it happen again? And if it did, how would it happen? A bomb? A lone gunman? A chemical attack? Could someone hack into Air Force One and shut off its engines? (OK, maybe that sounds a little outlandish, but it’s a possibility—keep reading.)

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There have been four successful assassinations in U.S. history. Abraham Lincoln was shot in the head at Ford’s Theater in 1865 by a confederate sympathizer. James Garfield took two bullets from a preacher in 1881 who waited for the president at a train station in D.C. William McKinley was shot in the belly by an anarchist and died 14 days later from gangrene. And then, of course, Kennedy was taken out on a sunny afternoon in Dallas, Texas. He was shot by…well, we won’t go there.

Trying to research the number of actual threats against President Obama is an exercise in futility (and, most probably, a recipe for a phone call from the NSA). The Department of Homeland Security keeps records of assassination attempts, murder plots and Twitter threats mostly classified, but a handful of concerned citizens do their best to keep that information available online.

One particularly insane-looking website titled Exposing the Future Assassination of Barack Obama claims there have been more than 65 attempts since Obama took office in 2008. The attempts range from ricin threats to a murder plot to be carried out in a Waffle House. (Since there is no official record of threats or attempts, the site scans local news articles to research assassination-related arrests.)

But the fact is, there hasn’t been a notable—and public—assassination attempt on the commander in chief since 1981, when John Hinckley Jr. fired at President Reagan outside a D.C. hotel. No bombs, no snipers. Which is surprising, really, when you consider how many enemies the United States faces today—certainly more than we did in 1963—and most likely more than 1981. Which begs the question: Is the Secret Service really that good? Or, has the president just gotten absurdly lucky?

I posed those questions to Dan Emmett, a 21-year veteran of the Secret Service and former captain in the U.S. Marine Corps who served under Presidents Bush I and Clinton. Emmett, who has written a book about his time as a special agent titled Within Arms Length, was quick to tell me that yes, of course it’s still possible to assassinate the president.

I asked him what he thinks is the biggest threat to the president today.

Bombs, he says.

“Since this war—that we’re still in—started, it has produced some of the world’s greatest bomb makers,” he says. “The people that are our enemies have become the world’s greatest producers of every imaginable type of explosive device. In my view that, by far, is the greatest threat.”

Since the Kennedy era, the Secret Service has been beefed up. It’s now a 7,000-person department with an annual budget of $1.6 billion, up from 350 people and a $5.5 million budget back in 1963.

“In the Kennedy era, it was nothing more than the sniper or the lone nut on the rope line. The demented person,” Emmett says. “That’s still a threat, but it’s moved well beyond that. Our primary concerns of old had to do mostly with the criminal mind, or the demented mind. Now we have so many enemies around the world that hate us because of ideology, that it’s created an entire new threat.”

Emmett explains that today, within its headquarters, the Secret Service operates a new division (appropriately titled the Intelligence Division) that basically serves as the clearinghouse for all threats against the president. There, the department keeps watch of threats made on social media—if you happen to be stupid enough to threaten the president on social media.

Let’s say someone in Spokane, Washington, threatens Obama on Facebook. The Intelligence Division picks up the threat and contacts local law enforcement in Spokane, which determines if the threat is viable and reports back to the Intelligence Division on their findings. This is the division of the Secret Service that also performs the famous name checks on any individuals that have an official appointment to meet the president—or even attend a small event where the president is speaking.

Then there’s Technical Security Division (or TSD), which looks at anything that can harm the president in the environment he is in—“all the way up to nuclear or biological chemical type threats,” Emmett says. When the president goes to a site to make a speech, TSD shows up in advance to make sure the building is structurally sound.

The president also travels with Navy Master Chief, whose military specialty is food service. “If it’s an event where [the president] is dining, that mess steward will go select what the president will have,” he says. “The president’s food is relatively safe.”

None of this is too surprising—if you’ve attended a presidential rally you’ve probably seen the swarms of Secret Service agents flanked by canine bomb-sniffing units. But Rob Roy, a former Navy SEAL, says the most the Secret Service can do at large events is seal manhole covers and perform background checks on people who recently bought guns in the area.

“If you have time and patience, you can kill anyone,” he says.

In the last few years, the Department of Homeland Security has also been quietly working on a number of high-tech approaches to security—like a facial recognition system called the Biometric Optical Surveillance System, or BOSS, that can scan crowds of 6,000 people and compare faces with those in criminal databases. The DHS, through its Science and Technology Directorate program, is also reportedly developing drones that can “determine whether individuals are armed or unarmed.”

Still, none of these things can do much to reduce the threat of a bomb. Emmett says the likelihood of a pre-planted bomb at a location where the president is speaking is relatively low—the TSD division of the Secret Service would likely detect it. The real threat comes from the seemingly random act—a hurled explosive device from a crowd of people or, even, a suicide attacker.

“The shot from afar—that doesn’t really send a huge message,” says Christopher Simovich, the CEO of Global Strategies, Inc., a bodyguards-for-hire firm. “If you’re looking for something, you’re looking for a catastrophic event more than an ‘assassination.’ What I would expect to see is something that sends a larger message of fear and insecurity within our American society.”

How comforting.

The federal government has spent gobs of money trying to solve the bomb challenge. The Office for Bombing Protection, for instance, was created in 2003 and receives an $11 million budget for this very issue. Beyond bomb sniffing dogs, the government is now working on detecting bombs through acoustic methods using “a laser vibrometer and a sonic beam to identify how the bomb’s casing vibrates.” Other researchers are working on using lasers to detect particular chemicals in the air, which would indicate a chemical attack.

There’s also another assassination scheme that’s beginning to percolate: hacking. Last month it emerged that Dick Cheney had the Wi-Fi connection of his pacemaker shut off in an attempt to thwart would-be terrorists trying to hack his heart. It may sound like the plot of a sci-fi film (in fact, it was the plotline of an episode of Homeland), but the threat, apparently, is real.

Jay Radcliffe, a security researcher and diabetic, demonstrated to an audience in 2011 how he hacked his own insulin pump, which is embedded in his skin and uses a wireless connection. “Any time you have connected devices, there’s always going to be some risk,” Radcliffe says.

Of course, a hacking assassination attempt is pretty unlikely. But the sad reality is that the threat of an assassination is perhaps more pervasive than ever before.

“The technology has come a long way, but usually it comes down to the officer being alert and searching the things they should,” Emmett says. “And the good nose of a dog.”