Some events are too shocking to forget, as much as we might want to. I'm old enough that for me, one of those events is President John F. Kennedy's assassination. I remember the day clearly, in no small part because I admired Kennedy. (I have a personalized, autographed photo of him along with various mementos from his administration, including one of the PT-109 tie clasps the late president distributed during his campaign.) And on a professional level, the attack that unfolded on the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, has been a subject of great interest to me.
For any student of protection, the Kennedy assassination is one of a handful of cases that demand dissection and close study. Separating the facts of the case from the fiction it has inspired is a tall order, though. It's hard to find another case that has drawn so much scrutiny and generated so many conspiracy theories. The recent release of previously classified documents on Kennedy's assassination reveals just how far these theories reached and offers new insight into a harrowing moment in American history.
The KGB Eyes LBJ
While I was looking through the documents, one item in particular caught my eye: an FBI letterhead memorandum — or an LHM as they call it in the business — from December 1966. The LHM is a fascinating, but startling, declassified top secret report from then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to the White House. In it, Hoover relays a reliable source's account of the Soviet response to Kennedy's death. Two days after the shooting, the source said, the chief of the KGB stated that Kennedy's assassination "posed a problem" for the Soviet intelligence agency. The KGB chief also said he believed an "organized group" was behind the act, rather than a lone perpetrator. Later in the report, Hoover describes information the FBI received from the same source in September 1965, suggesting that Moscow suspected Kennedy's vice president and successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson, as the mastermind behind the assassination. The LHM doesn't disclose the identities of the KGB or the FBI sources, though I would speculate that some degree of human intelligence was involved.
As a young special agent with the State Department, I learned firsthand that sometimes a case may have more to it than first meets the eye. Complex investigations, like the one I participated in to find out what caused the plane crash that killed Pakistani President Zia-ul Haq, along with the U.S. ambassador, are rarely black-and-white. Furthermore, any high-profile attack entails two parallel investigations. The first investigation centers on the hard facts — the who, what, where, how and why. The second delves into the secret and highly compartmentalized intelligence files. Rarely do the two investigations yield the same conclusion, and rarely do the people working one side of the case compare notes with the other.
But other times, a case is no more than it appears to be, even if it's hard to believe. The human mind finds it hard to imagine that a single actor could alter the course of history with an attack he or she planned and executed alone. At the U.S. Secret Service Academy, however, you learn that history is littered with examples of lone assailants who managed to do just that. Take Robert F. Kennedy's killer, Sirhan Sirhan, or Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassin, James Earl Ray. Just by pulling the trigger, these men changed the world, instantly and irreversibly.
Tragedy, Plain and Simple
For all the competing theories about the 35th president's death, Kennedy's assassination looks to be another example of the kind of chaos a single person can cause. Protective security failures at Dealey Plaza enabled Lee Harvey Oswald to pull off his mission. Had the limousine carrying the president not been a convertible, or had counter-snipers been installed along the motorcade route, Oswald might have failed. At the time, though, the U.S. intelligence community was so compartmentalized as to be dysfunctional. The CIA had one set of files, Hoover had another, and the two rarely shared their findings, outside the odd hard-copy memo. On top of that, the FBI's investigative and analytical capabilities were nowhere near what they are today, while the Secret Service had yet to develop a robust protective intelligence unit. If we could turn back the clock and scrape the world for threats as our intelligence agencies do some 50 years later, we'd no doubt find that the threats against Kennedy were more numerous and more serious than usual on that fateful day in Dallas.
Protection works, except when it doesn't. And all too often, it takes a tragedy to force bureaucratic change. Congress, for instance, didn't authorize the Secret Service to cover people running for presidential office until after Sirhan killed the younger Kennedy in 1968. It's simply the nature of government. On the day Oswald shot the president, the deck was stacked against the Secret Service such that one man managed to change the world forever in the span of a few seconds, just as John Wilkes Booth did a century earlier.