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Secret Service - Hidden History

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The late Professor Phil Melanson was an early member of COPA and the first COPA board member to support my call for a grand jury investigation. I also spent some time with him in Washington D.C. when he was researching his last book on the Secret Service. Now that the Secret Service role in the assassination of President Kennedy is making media news, I thought of how Phil would be one of those talking heads, except he would be saying something really significant. He is really missed, but his words still ring true today and should be factored in to what we know.


The Secret Service – The Hidden History of an Enigmatic Agency. By Philip H. Melanson, PH.D. (Carroll & Graf, 2002/2005)

On November 22, 1963, when the first bullet tore into JFK’s upper body and the final shot slammed into his head, everything changed – the nation and the Secret Service. The agency had lost Lancer, its codename for President John F. Kennedy, the first president under its protection to be killed.

The Secret Service immediately began a pattern of lies about its fatal missteps in Dallas that day and the days preceding it. The agency was experiencing the worst crisis it had ever faced.

At least two agents lied to the Warren Commission. Even worse, as they created the fiction about how thorough they had been, they implicitly pinned the blame on the fallen present himself, hinting that Kennedy’s recklessness or fatalism – not anything the agents had done in Dallas – ignited a tragic sequence of events. Kennedy’s critics still chant the mantra that the president brought it on himself. These outright lies and half-truths cannot absolve the Secret Service for losing the life of a president for the first time in history.

Within hours of the assassination, Agent Roy Kellerman, who had sat in the front seat of Kennedy’s limousine, assured the FBI, “The precautions employed in Dallas were the most stringent and thorough ever employed….for the visit of a president to an American city.”

He did not related how he had frozen for those six or seven seconds after the first shot – a time span that allowed the “kill shot” to the president’s head.

Agent William Greer, the driver of Kennedy’s car, neglected to admit how he had failed to hit the gas after the first shot or swerve the vehicle to throw off the unseen sniper’s aim. The limo continued rolling at snail’s pace down Dealey Plaza. Worse, it actually slowed down almost to a complete stop.

As Greer followed the established procedures and waited for a command from Kellerman to take action, the president was a proverbial sitting duck. The agents had those six or seven seconds to do something, anything, before the president’s head was nearly blown off. They did nothing and covered up their actions – or lack of them – to the Warren Commission and others.

The Service’s advance team in Dallas chose a flawed motorcade route and failed to check such potential sniper perches as the Texas School Book Depository and other buildings, and to secure an overpass. For years, the fiction that Kennedy had refused to allow agents to place a bulletproof bubbletop on the limousine persisted. The top was not actually bulletproof.

On November 21-22, the night before the assassination, nine of Kennedy’s agents who were “on call” were out drinking. The next day, several of the agents failed to notice that the motorcycle formation surrounding Kennedy’s limo was all wrong.

Because of poor coordination among the Secret Service, the FBI, and the Dallas Police, agents had no idea that a well-armed band of Cuban exiles, the commandos of Alpha-66 (who had threatened Kennedy’s life) were in Dallas at the time of the assassination.

…The Secret Service has done little to contest these bromides, allowing much of the blame to fall squarely on the slain president…For starters, the motorcade route should never have included a dog-leg turn that would slow the limo and reduce it to the pace of a sitting duck. Kennedy didn’t take agents out drinking the night before. Greer and Kellerman’s inactions was not Kennedy’s fault….

…The assassination of John F. Kennedy traumatized the nation, and for the Secret Service, the assassination brought a maelstrom of questions from the press and legislators, all demanding answers to one crucial question: The U.S. Secret Service had failed at its most important assignment – to protect the life of the president. How could this have happened?

In no dispute is the fact that President Kennedy’s trip to Texas was purely political in purpose…Secret Service documents reveal again and again the dominance of politics over protection in planning for the trip. In a disturbing development for the agency, the president’s protectors were not informed about the trip by the White House until political planning and publicity were well underway. The idea of a presidential visit to Texas had been discussed by President Kennedy, Vice President Johnson, and Texas Governor John Connally in a Texas hotel room on June 5, 1963, long before the Secret Service had any inkling of the plan. On September 13, 1963, the White House confirmed the trip, and the Dallas newspapers announced it as a fact, although the dates and itinerary were not actually settled.

On October 4, Connally visited the White House to work out the basic agenda for a motorcade and luncheon. He also held a press conference in Dallas to announce the visit. Finally, three days later, on November 4, the Secret Service was first informed by the White House staff that the president would be going to Dallas; learned that the logistics of the trip had been planned before they were apprised of it.

The head of the Secret Service’s Dallas field office, Agent Forrest Sorrells, was directed on November 4, 1963, by the head of the White House protective detail, Gerald A. Behn, to check out possible luncheon sites. The two venues considered best were the Trade Mart and the Women’s Building. The Secret Service preferred the Women’s Building….However the president and his inner circle had already selected the Trade Mart,…dropping the news on the Secret Service at the last minute.

Governor Connally was given the primary responsibility for arranging the political agenda…When Governor Connally heard that the luncheon might not be held at the Trade Mart if the Secret Service had its way, he threatened to boycott the entire trip. As the host politician whose political image was on the line, Connally was not about to oversee a presidential luncheon held at an inferior facility…The Secret Service had been sent on a fool’s errand when told to look for a luncheon site that could be best secured; politically, there was only one site…

On November 14, 1963 , Agents Sorrells, of the Dallas field office, and Lawson, form the White House detail, were riding over the proposed routes when they were informed by a member of the Democratic National Committee that the luncheon would definitely be held at the Trade Mart. Given the Love Field landing and a downtown motorcade, the Trade Mart luncheon site dictated most of the motorcade route, which would logically wind through Dealey Plaza and in front of the Texas School Book Depository.

The Dallas Times Herald announced the general route two days later, stating that it “apparently will loop through the downtown area probably on Main Street en route from Dallas Love Field.” On November 19, 1963, the precise route was published by the Dallas newspapers – three days before the president’s visit.

Thus, there was no attempt to exercise any secrecy regarding the president’s itinerary or motorcade route. The closest thing to secrecy seems to have been the way in which the politically determined plans concerning the trip were made known to the Secret Service at the last possible minute…

As was usual for the Secret Service, it met with local law-enforcement authorities in advance of the trip in order to obtain their help in placing protection. On November 18, 1963, Agents Lawson and Sorrells and two representatives of the Dallas Police Department drove over the motorcade route, taking notes on crowd control, traffic patterns, and the location of intersections, overpasses, and railroad crossings. They discussed how to seal off the motorcade route from other traffic so that there would be no snarls and drew up plans to assign police to each of the overpasses along the route, to keep spectators off them and to protect the president’s open limousine from being hit by any falling objects. At all railroad crossings, police officers would control the switching mechanisms….

….Strangely, this meticulous advance work did not include checking the triple overpass that crossed Elm Street just after the soon-to-be-infamous grassy knoll. No one cleared the area of spectators or guarded it with police – as it should have been – when the presidential limousine headed directly at and under it….

Agent Lawson later testified to the Warren Commission: “I recall thinking we were coming to an overpass now, so I glanced up to see if it was clear, the way most of them had been, the way all of them had been until that time on the way downtown, and it was not and I was looking for the officer who should have been there, had been requested to be there, and made a kind of motion through the windshield trying to get his attention to move the people from over our path the way it should have been. We were just approaching this overpass when I heard a shot.”

Along with the failure to secure the overpass and the knoll, agents neglected to check the tall buildings along the motorcade route either in advance, by checking lists of employees against Secret Service files, or at the time of the motorcade, by body-searching them before the president passed by. As Secretary of the Treasury Douglas Dillon informed the Warren Commission in a confidential memorandum: “Except for inauguration and other parades involving foreign dignitaries accompanied by the president in Washington, it has not been the practice of the Secret Service to make surveys or checks of the buildings along the route of a presidential motorcade...With the numbers of men available to the Secret Service and with the time available, surveys of hundreds of buildings and thousands of windows are not practical…Nor is it practical to prevent people from entering such buildings…Even if it were possible with a vastly larger force of security officers to do so, many observers have felt that such a procedure would not be consistent with the nature and purpose of the motorcade to let the people see their president and welcome him to their city.”

…The two critical questions hurled by the press and public alike at the Service in the immediate aftermath of the assassination and beyond were: How had the Agents failed in Dallas? And how had the Service missed Oswald? Within days, the Service was harangued because Oswald was not in its files, either on a list of four hundred dangerous persons or in its general files on more than forty thousand U.S. citizens. The Secret Service had combed through its protective research files and found no dangerous persons in the Dallas area, although there were two in Houston. Unfortunately, the Warren Report revealed just how limited were the resources of the protective research section, “a very small group of twelve specialists and three clerks.”

In the week before Kennedy arrived in Dallas, the Service did make a special effort to identify the individuals who had formented a near-riot by throwing rocks during the Adlai Stevenson incident. Agents worked with the Dallas police, who found an informant willing to identify the ringleaders of the demonstration by viewing a television film of the incident; then the Secret Service made still pictures of these ringleaders and distributed the images to agents and police who would be stationed at Love Field and at the Trade Mart. None of these potential troublemakers was ever spotted before or during the Kennedy visit.

Additionally, the Stevenson episode promoted the Service to pay “special attention to extremist groups known to be active in the Dallas area.”

….The real question was why Oswald was not brought to the attention of the Secret Service by the FBI, who did have a file on him and knew that he was in Dallas….The FBI’s interest in Oswald was as a potential subversive, a security risk, not as a violence-prone potential assassin…Dallas FBI Agent James Hosty had interviewed both Oswald and his wife Marina. Oswald resented these interviews and had allegedly written a note to Hosty – the contents of which are not known for certain – warning him not to annoy Marina. The note was destroyed by Agent Hosty shortly after the assassination…

Dallas police documents sitting in Warren Commission files show that despite the public attention focused on the Secret Service and the FBI’s failure to identify Oswald as a potentially dangerous person, the real failure to discover both Oswald and an extremist group in Dallas (Alpha 66) lay with the local police. Even though the Service’s protective research section had files on more than forty thousand persons, the agency depended in large part on local police for “identifying” and “neutralizing” potentially dangerous persons in the area to be visited by the president. Documents reveal that operational responsibility for identifying and investigating indigenous groups and individuals who might constitute a threat or embarrassment to President Kennedy fell to a twenty-man Dallas Police Department unit – the Criminal Intelligence Section, headed by Lt. Jack Revill.

In and around Dallas, the Criminal Intelligence Section investigated fourteen groups, including the Klu Klux Klan, the Black Muslims, and the local Nazi Party. As its name implied, the Criminal Intelligence Section had a clandestine capability. As a police memo describes: “This Section [Criminal Intelligence] had previously [before beginning to work on protective research for Kennedy’s visit] been successful infiltrating a number of these organizations; therefore, the activities, personalities and future plans of these groups were known.”

The Criminal Intelligence Section made two glaring errors in protective intelligence gathering for the president’s visit, errors that cannot be laid upon the Secret Service [bK – or JFK]. One was the omission of notice about Oswald. Unlike the FBI, whose written instructions to agents called for reporting persons who made threats against the president, the Criminal Intelligence Section had a broader mission of identifying persons who might threaten or embarrass the president. The Dallas detectives compiled a list of four hundred names, but so broadly was the net cast that four dozen persons who belonged to the Young People’s Socialists League were placed on the list simply because of the left-wing nature of their group. But Oswald, whose defection to the Soviet Union as a self-pronounced Marxist had been covered in the local press, was not included on the list.

The Criminal Intelligence Section evidently missed a specific chance to catch Oswald in its data net: He had joined one of the fourteen groups under surveillance – the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which many law-enforcement officers deemed a communist organization…

Meanwhile, Oswald, with his wife and two children, had been staying at the home of Michael and Ruth Paine. Michael Paine was a member of the ACLU and regularly attended its meetings. Oswald attended the October 25, 1963, meeting of the Dallas ACLU, with his host. During the meeting, Oswald spoke and, after it broke up, got into a heated argument with a man who defended the free-enterprise system against Oswald’s leftist remarks. The ACLU was under surveillance by police on a continuing basis, even before protective-intelligence gathering for the president’s visit had begun, meaning that they either ignored Oswald or missed him entirely.

Within a few days of the ACLU meeting, Oswald formally joined the ACLU and opened up a post office box in Dallas. On the postal form, he authorized the receipt of mail for the ACLU and also for the pro-Castro FPCC, yet another red flag revealing Oswald’s seemingly leftist or pro-communist leanings, and one missed or ignored by police intelligence.

Besides missing Oswald, the police Criminal Intelligence Section made another glaring error about a group that would have perhaps tipped off the Service to potential trouble in Dallas. The Stevenson incident had of course caught the attention of the Service, which was especially interested in “extremist groups” in the Dallas area and always seeking out intelligence on any cadre that contemplated assassination as a political weapon. Yet the police intelligence unit failed to report such a group to the agency. The group was Alpha-66.

The Dallas chapter of Alpha-66 was holding meetings in a house on Harlendale Street in Dallas for several weeks prior to the assassination. Perhaps the most militant and violent of all anti-Castro groups, Alpha-66 was composed of Cuban exiles, many of whom had fought in the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion. Alpha-66 was basically a right-wing commando group that launched missions against Castro’s Cuba from the U.S. coast – missions involving both sabotage and assassination.

Before the Kennedy assassination, the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) had been investigating the owner of a Dallas gun shop regarding illegal arms sales. They discovered that Alpha-66 had attempted to purchase bazookas and machine guns. The group, according to the gun-shop owner, had a large cache of arms somewhere in Dallas, but ATF never reported the allegation to the Secret Service.

The agency would have immediately regarded the presence of a group of commandoes enraged that Kennedy had refused to provide U.S. air cover for the Bay of Pigs invasion; many exiles held him personally responsible for their disastrous defeat at the hands of Castro’s army. Also, Kennedy had banned Cuban exile groups from launching raids against the island from U.S. soil and had publicly criticized Alpha-66 for violating his ban, to which the national head of Alpha-66 replied, “We are going to attack again and again.”

When the Dallas band of Alpha-66 did come to the attention of the Secret Service after the assassination, an FBI informant in Dallas reported that the head of the Dallas chapter, Manuel Rodriguez, “was known to be violently anti-President Kennedy.” According to another Warren Commission document that was accidently released in 1976 while it was still classified, Rodriguez was “apparently a survivor of the Bay of Pigs.”

Although the police Criminal Intelligence Section had missed Alpha-66 and its leader, another law enforcement unit with less intelligence gathering capacity, the Dallas County Sheriff’s Office, stumbled onto the group. At 8:00 A.M. on the day after the assassination, the Sheriff’s Office passed along a “hot tip” to the Secret Service: For about two months prior to the assassination, Oswald had been meeting in a house on Harlendale Street with a group that the Sheriff’s Office assumed to be the pro-Castro FPCC. The group reportedly met there for several weeks, up to either a few days before the assassination of the day of after. The group gathering at the house was actually Alpha-66.

The confusion appears to have resulted from the fact that Manuel Rodriguez, the head of the Dallas chapter, bore a resemblance to Lee Harvey Oswald, a fact that was independently confirmed by the FBI. The Bureau checked into a report that Oswald had been in Oklahoma on November 17, 1963, accompanied by several Cubans, and discovered that the Oklahoma witnesses had seen Rodriguez, not Oswald. According to an FBI memorandum signed by J. Edgar Hoover, Rodriguez was five feet nine inches, 145 pounds, with brown hair; Oswald’s autopsy report listed him as five feet nine inches, 150 pounds, with brown hair.

The Dallas Police Criminal Intelligence Section’s inability to find or report on Alpha-66 is all the more inexplicable because of a tape recording that surfaced in 1978 during the reinvestigation of the John F. Kennedy case conducted by the House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations, 1976-78.

Secretly recorded at a meeting of the Dallas John Birch Society the month before the assassination, the tape caught an anti-Castro Cuban exile and Bay of Pigs survivor – though not a member of Alpha-66 – denouncing Kennedy – “Get him out. Get him out. The quicker, the sooner the better. He’s doing all kind of deals. Mr. Kennedy is kissing Mr. Khruschev. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had kissed Castro too. I wouldn’t even call him “President” Kennedy. He stinks. We are going to see him one way or the other. We’re going to give him the works when he gets to Dallas.”

As with the ACLU, the John Birch Society was being monitored by the Criminal Intelligence Section, falling into the realm of extremists meeting the scrutiny in the wake of the Stevenson episode. The “Birchers” loathed Kennedy because of his alleged softness on communism and his civil-rights policies.

The Criminal Intelligence Section’s failure to discover or report the anti-Castroite’s assertion that “we’re going to give him the works when he gets to Dallas” or to uncover or report the presence of Alpha-66 and its allegedly “violently anti-Kennedy” leader comprises a gaffe that may have well contributed to the lax or flawed protective measures for Kennedy in Dallas. If the Secret Service had received even an inkling that the local Cuban exiles were threatening the president in any way, the agency well might have tightened precautions.

Not long before the Dallas trip, the Service had received word of a plot to assassinate President Kennedy, allegedly being planned by an unspecified group of Cuban exiles, the scheme was to ram Air Force One in midair with a small plane as the president approached Miami. Kennedy’s itinerary was changed and no threat materialized. Thus, in Dallas, the Service would have been wary of any Cuban exile group, especially a commando group such as Alpha-66. Had its presence been detected and reported, the Secret Service might have been able to persuade the president to accept additional protective measures, or agents might have operated with a keener sense of looming danger.

To summarize, the copious documentary record of the Secret Service’s performance during the agency’s most tragic episode does reveal that the failure most often attributed to it- the inability to identify Oswald as a potentially dangerous person – was not a Secret Service error at all. But failure in the gathering of protective intelligence did occur. The Criminal Intelligence Section of the Dallas Police Department had the best opportunity and the best reason to discover both Oswald and Alpha-66, but neither was reported to the Service…

In terms of protective performance during the shooting, though political priorities had predetermined much of the situation – an open car with no agents allowed on the running boards – agents failed to take immediate evasive and protective action that might have saved the president’s life. The extensive post-assassination criticism and analysis produced improved protective methods and technology.

Despite the Warren Commission’s findings and government insistence on the lone-gunman/Oswald conclusion, several of the agents in the presidential detail did not accept the assertions.

Later, some of the men expressed their belief that the case was really a conspiracy, as the vast majority of the U.S. public came to believe. Researcher Vince Palamara interviewed numerous Kennedy agents and cites Agents Sam Kinney, Abraham Bolden, Maurice Martineau, Marty Underwood, and John Norris as those who “believe this [conspiracy] to be the case.” In addition, says Palamara, June Kellerman, the widow of agent Roy Kellerman, stated that both Kellerman and fellow agent Bill Greer, who were in the front seat of Kennedy’s limo, asserted that there was more to the assassination that the “official” version let on.

The assassination of a political leader has a profound political impact, no matter the motive or method of the killer or killers. In an instant, the will of the people expressed at the polling places is shattered – bullets for ballots…

Certain conspiracies have a more profound impact on a democratic political system than the lone gunman or a few men. Though the impact on policies and the political dominoes of President Kennedy’s assassination are the same whether his assassin was a disaffected loner, a team of Mafia hitmen, or a CIA executive action squad, there is a key difference. When a powerful organized interests conspire to remove those leaders who threaten them, the very core of democracy is compromised.

If it happens frequently, there is no democracy (and no standard on how often is too often). It is proudly asserted that the United States has never suffered a coup d’etat - an overthrow of a duly elected leadership. If, however, John F. Kennedy was killed by organized political interests, then there was one, even if the perpetrators were not the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And the Secret Service knows it.

There are lone nuts and there are conspiracies. By the legal definition of the knowing participation of more than one person, the assaults against Lincoln, Truman, and Malcolm X were undeniably conspiracies. A conspiracy of line nuts is not as politically threatening as a conspiracy involving a foreign government, a criminal organization (the Mafia, the Cali drug cartel) or elements of the U.S. intelligence community…

In contrast, if CIA case officers and anti-Castro Cuban commandos successfully plotted to kill President Kennedy and frame a patsy while they escaped, it is truly a political murder instead of a murder that happens to be political in its target and impact. (If Hinkley had decided that to really impress Jodi Foster he needed to kill Elton John, the politics would disappear).

So when is the murder of a political leader a political assassination? And when is an assassin politically motivated as opposed to being insane? History has shown there are no easy answers.

Philip H. Melanson

Philip H. Melanson

Philip H. Melanson (1944 – September 18, 2006) was a Chancellor Professor of Policy Studies at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

An active member of COPA – the Coalition On Political Assassinations, he served as coordinator of the Robert F. Kennedy Assassination Archive, which is the world's largest collection on the subject, and also served as chair of the Political Science Department for 12 years.

An internationally recognized expert on political violence and governmental secrecy, Melanson wrote numerous books and articles related to these subjects. He appeared on NPR, BBC, CBS, and CNN news programs.

He made 95 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, which resulted in the release of over 200,000 pages of federal government documents on topics relevant to his research.


  • Knowledge, Politics, and Public Policy (ed.) (Cambridge, Mass.: Winthrop Publishers Inc., 1973).
  • Political Science and Political Knowledge (Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1975).
  • The Politics of Protection: The U.S. Secret Service in The Terrorist Age, (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1984).
  • The MURKIN Conspiracy: An Inquiry into the Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1988).(ISBN 0-275-93029-7)
  • Spy Saga: Lee Harvey Oswald and U.S. Intelligence (New York: Prager, 1990) (ISBN 0-275-93571-X).
  • The Robert F. Kennedy Assassination: New Revelations on the Conspiracy and Coverup, 1968–1991 (New York: Shapolsky Publishers, 1991). Paperback edition, 1994.
  • The Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: SPI Books, 1991). Paperback edition, 1994.
  • Who Killed Martin Luther King? (Berkeley, Cal.: Odonian Press, 1991).
  • Who Killed Robert Kennedy? (Berkeley, Cal Odonian Press, 1991).
  • Shadow Play: The Killing of Robert Kennedy, The Trial of Sirhan Sirhan, and the Failure of American Justice. with William Klaber, (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997). Paperback edition, 1998. (ISBN 0-312-15398-8)
  • Secrecy Wars: Privacy, National Security and the Public’s Right to Know (Dulles, Virginia: Brassey’s Inc., January 2002). (ISBN 1-57488-324-0)
  • The Secret Service: The Hidden History of an Enigmatic Agency with Peter Stevens, (New York): Carroll and Graff, 2002) (ISBN 0-7867-1617-7).

Notes and references

  1. Marquard, Bryan. "Philip Melanson. Professor doggedly sought to open government", "The Boston Globe", 2006-9-22.

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Thanks Bill. Appreciate this.

Hey Steve,

I'm glad somebodys reading it.

Phil Melanson was a very special guy who died a few years ago, but not before writing "Spy Saga," the unofficial history of the Secret Service and a number of other books, including one on the RFK assassination and establishing a RFK Assassination Research Center at his college.

I excerpted the parts from his Secret Service book regarding the assassination of JFK that I thought were important, and then from that took a sectoin that he devotes to the DPD Special Services Section, headed by Jack Revell, who he pinpints as being responsible for not picking up on Oswald or the Alpha 66 gang.

Phil went through the Secret Service records released up until that time 2003 and may have updated the 2005 edition, but he doesn't mention the responsiblities of the US Army Intelligence and US Army Reserve units that worked closely with the SS in Tampa and were in the motorcade and Dealey Plaza that PDS brings into the picture in his most recent Dallas COPA talk.

If he were alive today he most certainly would be an outspoken commentator on the media response to The Kennedy Detail.


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''So when is the murder of a political leader a political assassination?'' - It hss been said/written at the time that the assassination (a couple of hours after JFK's mid '63 civil Rights speech ) of Mrdgar Evers was the first 'modern' political assassination (in the US presumably) and I think that can be argued to have been a real conspiracy.

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