Election Is Crunch Time for U.S. Secret Service

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
October 28, 2004

To the United States Secret Service, Senator John Kerry is a tough challenge. An avid sportsman, the Democratic presidential candidate famously likes to windsurf and snowboard. That means the Secret Service agents must follow him into the water and onto the slopes.

"Those things are fairly new to us and difficult to deal with," said Brian Stafford, who directed the U.S. Secret Service from 1999 to 2003.

Ever since Democratic frontrunner Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1968 shortly after winning the California primary, U.S. presidential candidates have been safeguarded by the U.S. Secret Service in the 120 days before the election.

So instead of "just" having to protect the President of the United States, the Vice President, and their families, the Secret Service must now also defend the challengers and their families.

With just a week to go before the election, the candidates are all on the road, darting from one campaign stop to the next. Kerry may have put his sailboard and snowboard away, but these are busy times for the Secret Service.

Campaigns are unpredictable, and that's a word the agency doesn't like. A particularly dreaded event: unscripted movement, when a candidate makes an unannounced stop to meet and greet voters.

"Out there you definitely have an element of surprise," Stafford said, "and that could be unsettling."

Turning Point

The U.S. Secret Service was created in 1865 to combat counterfeiters. The duty to protect the President of the United States was created in 1901 following the assassination of President William McKinley, the third assassination in a 36-year period. Two agents were initially assigned to the White House.

The job has changed dramatically since then. The defining moment in the agency's history came in 1963 with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy as his motorcade drove through Dallas. Kennedy is the only President killed in office since the Secret Service began protecting the President. Today officials under protection cannot ride in open cars.

Presidential visits are planned in minute detail. During days of advance work, agents secure roads, entrances, and rooftops at the airport of a given destination to the venue the President will visit.

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