The Release of a Would-Be Presidential Assassin

Fred Burton
Chief Security Officer, Stratfor
4 MINS READAug 6, 2016 | 13:18 GMT
Lessons From Old Case Files

Time moves slowly during a midnight protective watch. Standing guard, waiting for your relief to show up, minutes can feel like hours. Many long nights pass uneventfully; you simply return home, another job complete. But there are those rare occasions when something does go wrong, and when it does, the situation usually escalates quickly.

One night in the early 1980s when I was with the U.S. Secret Service, I found myself standing watch outside a patient's door in a dimly lit corridor at George Washington University Hospital, located in our nation's capital. The patient was James Brady, the White House press secretary. Though that night's watch was routine, not long before, on March 30, 1981, what had been a routine occasion went horribly wrong. Brady and three other people were seriously injured, the victims of a would-be presidential assassin.

President Ronald Reagan, U.S. Secret Service Special Agent Tim McCarthy, Washington police officer Thomas Delahanty and Brady were all shot by one man: John Hinckley. Brady was left paralyzed by the attack, and his death in 2014 was attributed to the wound he received that day. Hinckley's motive for the attempt on Reagan's life was downright bizarre, hinging on a growing obsession with actress Jodie Foster. He was hoping to kill the U.S. president because, of all things, Hinckley believed assassinating Reagan would impress Foster. In a 1982 trial, Hinckley was found insane and confined to a psychiatric hospital in Washington, where he has remained ever since.

It came as something of a shock to those of us in the security business when, in a June 27 ruling, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman ordered that Hinckley be freed, writing that his psychotic disorders have been under control for more than 20 years and that he no longer poses a threat to himself or others. Hinckley was cleared to leave St. Elizabeth's Hospital on Aug. 5 to live full-time with his elderly mother in Virginia.

Some have expressed their outrage with Hinckley's release, and I certainly understand their position. I am confident, however, that the Secret Service will keep close tabs on Hinckley to ensure that this particular would-be presidential assassin won't strike again. They have learned their lesson from past tragedies: Now, as always, the biggest threat to protection officers and agents is complacency.

When I was a student in the U.S. Secret Service Academy, I was fascinated by the block of instruction on presidential assassinations. The instructor went through the successful attacks on Presidents Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy. There were also lessons to be learned from the many thwarted assassination attempts on U.S. leaders. Our instructors taught us to appreciate the weight of our responsibility, all the while focusing their lessons on methods for preventing similar attacks. 

Tragedy forces us to adapt, and the attack on Reagan prompted the Secret Service to make big changes. On that March day, Hinckley had emerged from the press area he used as camouflage and got off six shots with his .22-caliber pistol; one round struck Brady in the head, while a ricochet lodged near Reagan's heart. After the attack, the Secret Service's Uniformed Division took on a greatly expanded role and began assisting special agents in standing watch, crowd control and security screenings. The division's officers also were deployed to enhance detection of explosives and hazardous materials, to serve as members of counter-sniper teams, and to work with K-9 teams.

Following the recent court decision, Hinckley may now be free, but he will not go unwatched. My former colleagues in the Secret Service will be monitoring his activities even as they continue their day-to-day duties — setting up perimeters and scanning each new crowd for potential threats. They refuse to be lulled into a false sense of security by the monotony of routine. All too well, they know that any moment, another attack could shatter the peace.

Back at the headquarters of the State Department's protective services, a plaque hangs on the wall with a quote from Frederick Forsyth's brilliant 1971 novel, The Day of The Jackal:

"All big men have bodyguards and security men, but over a period of years without any serious attempt on the life of the big man, the checks become formal, the routines mechanical and the degree of watchfulness is lowered. The single bullet that finishes the target is wholly unexpected..."

As ever, the words are a grim reminder of the seriousness of the security business.

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