Blunders Guarding Obama Are Lessons for Secret Service

After John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, the Secret Service changed its motorcade rules and stopped letting the president ride in convertibles.

In the wake of presidential candidate George Wallace’s near-fatal shooting in 1972, the service drilled agents to react faster without thinking.

After Ronald Reagan was shot and almost killed by a deranged gunman at close range, agents blocked bystanders from getting anywhere close to the president.

“As you look back at history, the Service has always benefited from a crisis and learned from a crisis,” said Jim Varey, a former Secret Service agent and supervisor and later chief of the U.S. Capitol Police.

What specific lessons the Secret Service learns from its most recent crisis is the work of two reviews, one internal overseen by the Department of Homeland Security and another by outside experts. If the past is a guide, the agency will make changes that may save lives, but will need refreshing with time.

Former high-ranking agents said the reviews are necessary and will likely expose problems that have festered for years. Supervision and technology need to improve, they said. The agency needs to refocus agents on guard duty and to adopt advanced systems, such as those that can identify gunfire and pinpoint its location.

The agents applauded as necessary the outside review because of the multiple, embarrassing security breaches that tarnished the elite agency’s reputation and led to the resignation Oct. 1 of its Director Julia Pierson.

Pierson’s Term

Pierson, the agency’s first female director, was brought in fix things 18 months ago after agents were caught cavorting with prostitutes before a presidential visit to Colombia. She resigned after the agency took more than a week to disclose that its initial statements about a Sept. 19 breach by an intruder who scaled the White House fence was far more serious than initially stated. The troubled 42-year-old Army veteran didn’t just make it inside the front door, as the agency first asserted -- he got deep into the mansion.

“It’s best to study lessons learned from other people’s mistakes,” said Paul Kelly, a former agent in charge of the White House division who also worked at the service’s training academy. “But if the mistake is your own, you have to learn from it. The stakes in this line of work are very high.”

Kelly said he was particularly concerned about a lapse last month in which the presidential security detail didn’t screen the background of an armed security guard who was permitted to ride in an elevator with President Barack Obama. It turned out that the man had a criminal record.

Complacency’s Cost

Such complacency nearly cost another president his life. Thirty-three years ago, agents failed to seriously review and critique a frequently used security plan, allowing John Hinckley to uncork six shots at Ronald Reagan from a distance of just 15 feet.

Reagan’s life was saved because other lessons were learned in light of agents’ poor performance in protecting Wallace in 1972, the former agents said.

Wallace’s guards erred in allowing Wallace to walk up and back down a rope line of unscreened supporters, permitting his would-be assassin to steel his nerves and take careful aim.

The would-be assassin got within arm’s reach of Wallace and shot him four times during a campaign rally in Laurel, Maryland. An agent at Wallace’s side didn’t immediately recognize the gunfire and hesitated, leaving Wallace’s wife to cover his bleeding body on the ground.

More Training

Over the next few years, the Service ramped up its training, with realistic and intense drills that taught agents, even top supervisors, to react quickly with medical aid.

By the time Hinckley fired six shots in 1.7 seconds on March 30, 1981, 50-year-old Jerry Parr, the head of the White House detail, nearly had the president safely inside the limousine. Reagan was only hit by a final shot that ricocheted off the side of the limo, slipped through a small gap between the car’s door and frame and hit Reagan in the side.

If Parr hadn’t reacted so quickly, Reagan would have been an easy target. If the agent had been a split-second slower, the president would have been hit in the head. Another agent also reacted quickly -- Tim McCarthy took a blocking stance at the crack of gunfire and took Hinckley’s fourth shot in the chest.

As they raced from the scene, Parr relied on his medical training to assess that the president had been seriously hurt and diverted the armored limo to George Washington University Hospital, where doctors and nurses saved Reagan’s life.

In that way, the lessons of the Wallace attempt and the examination of other assassinations around the globe helped save Reagan’s life.

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