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. Full Coverage of Shootings at the Capitol

  Slipping Past Security

Clinton/AP
Weston had lurid delusions about Clinton, who last week called the shooting "a moment of savagery." (AP)
By Howard Fineman and Karen Breslau
Newsweek 8/3/98

As obscure as he was, Rusty Weston was known to the authorities. After he made vague threats about President Clinton in the spring of 1996, police in Montana told the Secret Service about Weston; agents interviewed him there twice.

In July 1996, Weston drove to the CIA main gate near Washington and agency security men filed a report to the Secret Service about his rantings at Langley. For more than two years Weston has been on a master list of some 25,000 people considered "possible threats" to "protectees": the president and vice president and their families, and former presidents.

Weston was on the Secret Service's master list of 25,000 people. But could anything have stopped him?

Now come the inevitable questions. Shouldn't authorities have known that Weston might become a shooter? His alleged rampage left two dead and a nation again agonizing over how to balance security with freedom, the protection of leaders with the privacy of the led.

"When does free speech become a crime?" asked Ron Noble, a former overseer of the Secret Service. "No one has come up with a formula for predicting when – or where – a person is going to commit a crime."

Not for lack of trying. The Capitol shooting exposed a netherworld most Americans never see, in which the Secret Service – armed with computers and the latest in behavior theory – monitors, categorizes and tries to divine the future conduct of thousands of people, all in the name of preventing a dreaded "AOP": "attack on principal."

The service, which has only 1,000 agents on "protective" duty, substitutes shrewd guesses and digging for brute surveillance. It doesn't always help: agents, NEWSWEEK has learned, ruefully found photos of John Hinckley in a crowd around President Carter – but only after the Reagan assassination attempt.

Each year the service makes hundreds of "threat assessments," balancing motives, capacity, location and mental stability before deciding whether to add someone to the database of those considered a theoretical danger to the president. They're on file, but not watched.

Perhaps 90 percent are mentally ill, institutionalized or on medication. Weston was on that list – barely.

A top federal law-enforcement official told NEWSWEEK that Weston was "on the lower end" of the database scale. Illinois officials issued him a firearm-owner identification card despite his history; the list isn't routinely distributed to local law enforcement.

Weston wasn't on a much shorter "watch list," which NEWSWEEK Secret Service sources say numbers only several hundred. Considered dangerous, these potential perps are checked up on regularly, even if they haven't made any recent threats. If a "protectee" travels to their area, watch-list members are surveilled by local authorities.

But even if he had been on the watch list, Weston probably wouldn't have come to the attention of Capitol Police. If the Secret Service had heard about a threat to a congressman, it would pass it on. But, NEWSWEEK has learned, there is no indication that Weston made any threat, or, if he did, that the service knew of it.

That's the problem: no amount of vigilance can stop every Rusty Weston. For as he drove East, it seems that only he knew his destination.

With Mark Hosenball and Gregory L. Vistica

© 1998 by Newsweek, Inc.

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