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How To Make The Secret Service’s Unwanted List

2 minute read
James Carney/Washington

It’s not hard to get the attention of the Secret Service. Write threatening letters to the White House. Or do as Russell Weston did–keep telling people you want to harm the President until someone calls the police. If all goes by the book, the Service is alerted, agents are dispatched, and the maker of the threats is interrogated and evaluated.

But the Service can do only so much. Unless someone is deemed a serious and immediate danger, he or she isn’t placed under surveillance. Instead the agency compiles a file on the individual, entering the name into a computer. And unless more threats are made–or the person shows up for a White House tour–no more action is taken. The vast majority of the Russell Westons who come across the Secret Service radar screen every year–and there are dozens–are never more than names in a database reserved mostly for cranks and crazies.

Weston is not the first person involved in a murderous incident who had earlier found his way into the Service’s files. Samuel Byck first caught agents’ attention after making a threat against President Nixon’s life in 1972. In 1974 Byck killed a policeman, an airline pilot, then himself in a failed effort to hijack a DC-9 that he planned to crash into the White House. In 1975 agents evaluated Sarah Jane Moore and decided she was not dangerous. Then she fired a gun at President Ford. “Washington is kind of a mecca for nuts,” says a federal law-enforcement officer. “Disturbed people go there because they think that’s where their problems are emanating from.”

Weston fits another profile the Secret Service is used to encountering. Potential assassins, especially delusional ones, often change targets, making it difficult to predict who is in danger. Only after Arthur Bremmer shot and seriously wounded presidential candidate George Wallace in 1972 did the Service learn–from Bremmer’s diary–that the would-be assassin had stalked Nixon before turning to the less protected Wallace. So it was with Weston. He made threats against a President, but he took his gun to Capitol Hill.

–By James Carney/Washington

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