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The JFK Assassination and the Close Protection Conference in 2023

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It was our privilege to talk to Fred Burton, Executive Director of Protective Intelligence at Ontic, who will shed light at this year’s Close Protection Conference on an event that altered the course of history and protection forever — the JFK assassination.

The upcoming Close Protection Conference, set against the backdrop of Dallas, a city forever tied to this significant event, prominently features the assassination of President John F. Kennedy as a key theme. Join us as we explore the pivotal role of this event.

Why is the JFK assassination such an important subject in the context of protection?

If you look at the JFK assassination, clearly you can see the single biggest event in modern history that changed protection forever.  As someone who has spent their life investigating acts of terror, attacks on Principals and other types of threats affecting dignitaries, this needs also to be looked at from an intelligence failure standpoint.

If we bracket the surprise attack on Pearl Harbour and the events of 9/11, right in the middle you have the JFK assassination – which may have been as significant an event, as an intelligence failure for the United States as it pertains to the protection of a sitting President of the US. The domino effect as you look through events, you had an intelligence failure, a protection breakdown, you had a sniper on a tower in Dallas. The catastrophic fallout of that day was simply unparalleled in the history of modern America.

What are the lessons learned and applied in the aftermath of the JFK assassination?

Lord knows I’ve done my share of these after-action reports – I’ve worked on the assassination of Rabin in Israel and other similar attacks. You had a protection unit that’s been doing the same thing forever, transitioning from Truman to Eisenhower to Kennedy. Without any increase in resources, they had to protect this very flamboyant, young personality that drew so much attention, not only to himself but also his wife, Jackie, and the children – which was very unique at the time.

From a practical standpoint, you had an organization that really had to transform quickly into a modern-day protection unit. But they were still stuck in the 1940s era.

The key takeaways from a security perspective down in the weeds are:

  • The attack took place with a sniper, and this caused the Secret Service to rethink high-ground protection, such as creating counter snipers to be able to look for a shooter;
  • The President was in an open-topped car, without a protective ceiling above him; and,
  • Finally, there is the intelligence failure itself – the inability to identify Oswald prior to the attack, an individual that defected to Moscow that was known to the FBI and CIA and yet that intelligence was not shared with the Secret Service.

One of the more fascinating tidbits I uncovered, researching and talking to old Secret Service agents from the Lancer detail, is that they had these little 3×5 flashcards. On one side there was the picture of the threat actor and on the other you had his name, height, weight – the usual data you would find on a BOLO report from that era. They had these cards stuck in their pockets even in the motorcade through Dealey Plaza. Imagine what it must have been like, trying to identify a threat actor in a moving motorcade in a crowded street, with all the people trying to touch the President and the First Lady.

In fact, I spoke with one of the agents from the detail, he said that those BOLO cards were parsed out from their Research Division, prior to a trip, and then they would disseminate that and be on the lookout for the usual suspects.

The tragic part of that is that they had no flashcard with the picture of Lee Harvey Oswald, because the Secret Service did not have any intelligence related to him pertaining to that event in Dallas.

The elephant in the room is that we are still dealing with classification issues surrounding the JFK assassination – in which hundreds of documents still have not been declassified. Some of the reasons why that is so have most likely to do with sourced and methods, or foreign policy exceptions pertaining to what that data might say.

For the sake of argument, that creates all the conspiracy theories that have existed since JFK was assassinated and to this day, we still do not have a holistic picture as to what actually happened.

Speaking of conspiracy theories, what are some of the of the most important misconceptions?

From a historical perspective, there has certainly been a tremendous amount of skepticism, as well as allegations that the US intelligence community had something to do with the attack, perhaps there were rogue elements in the CIA. JFK comes into a period at the height of the Cold War, in the aftermath of the the Bay of Pigs. He had secret backdoor channels going on with Khrushchev and the Soviet Union that his brother, the Attorney General, was kind of side barring. Vietnam was underway. Geopolitical collisions were taking place. There were allegations from Oswald having ties to the CIA as well as the Cuban and Russian intelligence, to nation-state activities being driven by those two countries.

This young, vibrant President, that was extraordinarily liked in the USA, was gunned down during what should have been a very routine trip to Dallas.

The IPSB Conference is just around the corner, what can we expect this year?

I am really looking forward to the conference, it is the premier event in the protection space and it’s an honor to be invited to chat a little bit with EP Wired. I expect the IPSB this year to be the largest attended event we’ve seen so far. I know that there is a huge amount of interest, not only because of its’ networking value, but the ability to look at new vendors at the protection space and try to stay ahead of the bad guy or gal.

It’s one of those kinds of events that are very unique and specialized – I always come away from it learning something. We can expect a great number of speakers and I am really looking forward to attending.

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