On my desk at Stratfor's Austin headquarters sits a photograph from 1982 of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, along with a personalized note card that reads "for taking such good care of us." Although I played only a minimal role in the family's protection, it was very kind of the Bushes to acknowledge me. But that gracious gesture reflected the kind of people they were. I also was recently honored by an inspirational testimonial that Mr. Bush wrote about my latest book, Beirut Rules: The Murder of a CIA Station Chief and Hezbollah’s War Against America. The book tells the story of the kidnapping and murder of CIA station chief Bill Buckley, a crime that occurred during Bush's term as vice president.
Bush was 94 when he died Nov. 30, almost eight months after his wife of 73 years passed. As I remember the man who served as the 41st U.S. president, one event sticks out in my mind.
One cold November night in 1981, I reported for midnight duty protecting the Bushes at their residence on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. That night, the intelligence division of the U.S. Secret Service passed out a photocopy of a warning that a hit team backed by Libya had been reported headed for the United States as part of a plot to attack senior U.S. government officials. The vice president, who had been assigned the radio call sign “Timberwolf,” was apparently one of the intended targets. As The New York Times reported Nov. 23, 1981, “The Secret Service said today that it was 'aware' of reports that Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya had plotted the assassination of President Reagan, Vice President Bush and two top Cabinet members … Extra measures have also been taken to protect Mr. Bush and Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, according to the reports.”
Images of the purported assassins, put together using an old-fashioned "IdentiKit,” had been circulated along with the advisory. The IdentiKit gave investigators a kind of mix-and-match toolbox of facial features, allowing them to roughly fashion a person's likeness with plastic overlays using hair, noses, foreheads and even hats. The images it produced were helpful, but hardly definitive. However, in the absence of an actual photograph, the IdentiKit was the best tool we had in the days before computer software tools allowed for more realistic re-creations.
I recall that the rogue’s gallery of five or six suspects included an unshaven man of Arab or Palestinian origin and an East German with a crew cut and distinctive block-shaped head. The origin of the information that led to the alert was not passed along, but the threat was taken very seriously. After all, Gadhafi had been known to employ terrorists like Carlos the Jackal as high-priced hit men, assisted by the likes of the Italian Red Brigades, the Japanese Red Army and the West German Baader-Meinhof Group.
Needless to say, the intelligence on the hit team shattered the quiet norm at the Naval Observatory. Secret Service K-9 units and the Metropolitan Police Department increased their patrols of the vice presidential residence, and shotguns and submachine guns were issued to agents on guard. As was the case for many of the terrorism alerts that we encountered, no plot actually unfolded in this case. However, the events certainly reminded me of the seriousness of my job, making me appreciate even more the risks that officials take, even under the watchful eye of protective measures.
Remembering that situation also makes me thankful that Bush, a war hero and dedicated public servant of many years, lived to be a ripe old age before dying of natural causes. As I watched on television while the dedicated agents from the U.S. Secret Service carried Bush's coffin from a funeral home in Houston into a waiting hearse, I was struck by the words that the agency lives by: "protection never rests." The men and women serving that cause will stand post until the president's body, after lying in state at the U.S. Capitol and following a funeral service at the Washington National Cathedral, is interred at the Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas. I’m sure the agents accompanying his coffin are wrestling with a range of emotions, but, like myself, they remain truly honored to serve and be a part of history.