The attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan 30 years ago this month spotlighted shortcomings in Secret Service protection and in the process for transferring power when a president is incapacitated.
Incredibly, when a president was disabled, no procedure was in place to delegate authority immediately. After Reagan was shot, the FBI confiscated all his clothing and personal effects at the hospital as evidence. That included the card with codes for authenticating who the president was so he could launch a nuclear strike.
“We sat in the office the next day and looked at this thing, and then we found out [what the card was],” Thomas J. Baker, who was in charge of the FBI response at the Washington field office, tells me. “It looked basically like a credit card or an ATM card,” says Baker, who was the assistant special agent in charge of criminal investigations and the first FBI agent on the scene at the shooting. “It had some holes punched through it.”
The card was the “authentication card that the president can slip into the ‘football’ that really authorizes the use of the nukes,” Baker says. “This card, when put into this device, tells the device, and command and control down the road for the nuclear weapons, that this is the president.”
Despite a demand by James V. Hickey Jr., then the director of the White House Military Office, the FBI held on to the card for two weeks.
Because no guidelines had been worked out for such a situation, it was not clear who could launch a nuclear strike while Reagan was incapacitated. As vice president, George H.W. Bush could have taken it upon himself to call the Defense secretary over a secure line and authorize a strike, but even he would not have had legal authority to do so.
In the event a president is disabled, the 25th Amendment to the Constitution allows the vice president to act for the president only if the president has declared in writing to the Senate and the House that he is disabled and cannot discharge his duties.
If the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet decide the president may not discharge his duties, they may make the vice president acting president. But that requires time.
When Bush became president, his administration drafted a highly detailed, classified plan for immediately transferring power in case of serious presidential illness. The Secret Service learned lessons as well. Until the Reagan shooting, it had used metal detectors only when screening visitors to the White House.
All that changed after John W. Hinckley Jr. fired a .22 caliber revolver at Reagan as he left the Washington Hilton Hotel at 2:35 p.m. on March 30, 1981.
Members of the public were being allowed to greet Reagan as he left the hotel. By inserting himself into that crowd, which included the press, Hinckley got within 20 feet of the president. As a result of the Reagan incident, the Secret Service began using magnetometers to screen crowds at events.
“We started to look at acceptable stand-off distances to keep crowds away,” Danny Spriggs, the agent who took Hinckley into custody at the shooting, told me for my book “In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect.” “The distances would vary with the environment.”
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The Secret Service also learned to segregate the press from onlookers and keep better tabs on reporters to make sure no one infiltrates. An agent is assigned to watch the press, and members of the press themselves alert agents to infiltrators.
However, as revealed in the book, because of corner-cutting by current Secret Service management, the Secret Service now fails to conduct magnetometer screening at some events or shuts them down early under pressure from political staffers, who become annoyed at delays.
The corner-cutting began gradually after the Department of Homeland Security took over the Secret Service. Agents who served before the laxness began say they would never have bowed to such pressure or cut corners by skipping magnetometer screening entirely.
“Requests were made by staff to expedite or stop magnetometer screening,” says Spriggs, who headed protection and retired as deputy director of the Secret Service in 2004. “I would never have acquiesced to that.”
“You face pressure from political staffs all the time, but you don’t stop magnetometer screening,” says Norm Jarvis, who taught new agents and was a special agent in charge until he retired in 2005. “Sometimes things happen and the flow rate is a little slow. But nobody in the Secret Service would allow the staff to impair security and jeopardize the life of the president by stopping magnetometer screening.”
Nobody until now.
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via e-mail. Go here now.
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