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Geri Spieler

Geri Spieler

Posted January 4, 2009 | 03:01 PM (EST)

Protecting the President: Lessons Learned?


President-elect Barack Obama says he has confidence that his Secret Service security detail will do their job so he can do his job.

I'm glad he is not worried -- but I am. I'm hopeful, but not sure, that our Secret Service has learned from some hard lessons from the past.

One such lesson took place when Pres. Gerald Ford came out to Northern California to dedicate a new law building at Stanford University on Sunday, Sept. 21, 1975 and to meet the next day with World Affairs Council at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco.

On the 22nd, just outside the St. Francis hotel, a white, middle-aged woman in a powder blue trench coat was standing near the front of the crowd that was waiting to see Pres. Ford. As he emerged, she pulled a gun from her purse, raised her arms, cupped one hand under the other, aimed and shot.

She missed his head by a mere six inches.

The woman was Sara Jane Moore. There were two significant Secret-Service-related reasons that she was free to stand on that sidewalk that afternoon, gun in hand. The first was that there were major gaps in communications among our various law enforcement agencies. Moore was known to the FBI and the San Francisco Police Department, but the Secret Service did not give sufficient credence to the communication from the SFPD inspector who called to say that she was a viable threat, and the Secret Service did not communicate with the FBI to find out what they knew about her.

Instead, responding to the SFPD call, Secret Service agents Gary Yauger and Martin Haskell Jr. picked Sara Jane up and took her to their offices in the Federal Building on Golden Gate Avenue, questioned her, and released her. When the Secret Service was questioned about this decision later on, an agency spokesman would only say that the interview showed that she "was not of sufficient protection interest to warrant surveillance."

According to studies by the Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC), the 1975 profile of a "threat" was: "male, between the ages of 20 and 40, of slight build, born overseas, unemployed, a loner, and some who suffered from delusions of grandeur or persecution." Research by the NTAC, taken from studies as far back as 1980, revealed that the use of the profile available to the Service at the time, "would have failed to identify Sara Jane Moore prior to her assassination attempt on President Ford."

On Sept. 11, 2001, our country suffered a much more severe blow than that attempted 1975 assassination. Once again, studies [this time by the Congressional "9-11 Commission"] indicated that the lack of communication among our several security agencies contributed significantly to our failure to anticipate the airplane high-jackings and targeted crashes that day.

In 1977, in his role as Director of the CIA, Admiral Stansfield Turner recommended bringing our security agencies under one overarching roof, but that recommendation was not implemented. It took the events of September 11 to mobilize the government. Legislation was passed in 2002, and, on March 1, 2003, the Department of Homeland Security came into existence, coordinate, centralize, and integrate the activities of 22 agencies. Further, in 2004, Congress created the position of the Director of National Intelligence, to be separate from the CIA, and to coordinate intelligence sharing.

On Dec. 12, 2003, I had asked Pres. Ford if he had any wisdom about assassinations and assassination attempts that he could share from his membership on the Warren Commission and from his own more personal experiences.

"There is no formula for predicting who is going to attempt to assassinate the President. Lee Harvey Oswald, Sara Jane Moore. There is no way to tell," he said. He also observed that the failure of the agencies to share information in 1975 had obviously continued.

I asked Pres. Ford what he saw as the barriers to those agencies working together more effectively. He focused on the political issues involved. He told me: "They all want their own turf ...They get their own money, and they have their own power bases. ...I don't expect any of those organizations to give up what they have without a fight."

From what I have read, it appears the Secret Service is determined and prepared to take good care of my president, and that they have broadened their profiles significantly to avoid the narrow screening that left Sara Jane Moore on the streets in 1975.

As for the communication issues that have plagued our law enforcement agencies, it is my hope that the Department of Homeland Security may have accomplished what no other organizational entity has ever achieved: a Strategic Plan by which security agencies have the tools and, perhaps even more importantly, the incentives to communicate effectively with each other.

We have a Director of National Intelligence, who receives reports of various agency activities, including, specifically, the CIA. I hope they have found and are drawing upon the technology that will to enable the National Security Agency/Central Security Service [part of the Department of Defense], the Central Intelligence Agency [funded directly by Congress], the FBI [part of the Department of Justice], and by the Secret Service [part of Homeland Security] to integrate and effectively interpret the data collected by these several agencies, to provide effective screening of potentially harmful people, without compromising the individual freedoms we value as Americans.

Geri Spieler is the author of, Taking Aim at the President: The Remarkable Story of the Woman who Shot at Gerald Ford, published by Palgrave-Macmillan, available now online and in book stores Jan. 12, 2009