March 28, 2021
WASHINGTON DC – Writing for the WALL STREET JOURNAL [WSJ], member TOM BAKER provides an interesting account of events surrounding HINCKLEY’s attempt to assassinate President REAGAN, that “not” only spurred major reforms in the U.S. Secret Service [USSS] but might have averted an invasion of Poland by the Soviet Union.
Learning about the incident on his car radio, BAKER states he was the 1st agent to arrive at the Washington HILTON, mandating he take control of the investigation, because of a 1965 statute, giving the FBI primary jurisdiction.
Responsible for the Criminal Division which included crimes involving an assault on the President, BAKER was the Assistant Special-in-Charge responsible for the FBI’s Washington Field Office [WFO].
An interesting opinion piece, BAKER gives readers an inside picture concerning what happens, per chance, a President is assaulted. Looking back, President REAGAN was lucky he survived the assault.
The Wall Street Journal
The Day the President Was Shot
The attempt on Reagan’s life spurred major reforms and might have averted a Soviet invasion of Poland.
By Thomas J. Baker
March 28, 2021 12:51 pm ET
When the president was shot, I was driving away from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It was 2:30 p.m. on Monday, March 30, 1981. A radio announcer interrupted my music with the dire news.
I sped to the Washington Hilton, where I turned out to be the first FBI agent on the chaotic scene. Ambulances with sirens blaring were arriving from all directions. Two Marine helicopters, self-dispatched, hovered above the roofline between the hotel towers. I expected a law-enforcement turf war, as had happened in 1963 after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. But it didn’t materialize.
Capt. Jimmy Wilson, commander of the Metropolitan Police Department’s homicide unit, strode toward me holding a clear envelope containing the revolver they had taken from the shooter. To simplify the chain of custody, I asked him to hang onto it until the FBI crime-scene truck arrived. Robert Powis, special agent in charge of the Secret Service’s Washington Field Office, approached next. “You’re the FBI,” he said. “You’re taking charge of the investigation now.” A 1965 statute made assault on the president a federal crime and charged the bureau with conducting any probes. That meant me, head of the criminal division in the Washington Field Office.
The crowd thickened as White House aides and media arrived. Al Fury, the Hilton’s security director, gave us a suite near the shooting site to use as a forward command post. Earlier, worried by the crowd gathering outside while the president spoke, Fury had offered to let Secret Service agents escort Reagan out though the garage; Fury was vocal in his disappointment when they declined. He tried to control the crowd with a velvet rope, and he snapped a photo that showed John Hinckley standing among the press moments before he shot the president.
The shooting came amid high international tension. At the FBI’s Washington Field Office, we’d been monitoring the situation with the Soviet Union. In office barely two months, Reagan took a far more confrontational approach than his predecessor. At the same time, Moscow was in a standoff in Poland against the Solidarity labor movement. The public didn’t yet know—but we did—that the Soviets were preparing for a military invasion of Poland.
They had also been maneuvering missile-carrying submarines close to America’s coastline, and Vice President George Bush was unreachable, flying in Texas and later back to Washington on a plane without secure communications. All that helps explain why some administration officials—including Secretary of State Alexander Haig, who famously declared “I am in control here”—were so excitable.
Everybody today knows that Mr. Hinckley was a lone, disturbed young man. Then, we knew almost nothing—including whether anyone else was involved or other attacks were planned. In Fury’s photo, everyone is smiling except the expressionless Mr. Hinckley. He was similarly impassive when FBI agents interviewed him. He didn’t deny shooting Reagan, and he said he was staying at a nearby hotel. Around 11 p.m. I left the Hilton and met agents at Mr. Hinckley’s room, where they were executing a search warrant.
What we found there was bizarre. Laid out on the desk was Mr. Hinckley’s whole plan—a map, a newspaper open to the president’s daily schedule with the Hilton event circled, and, strangest of all, a letter to actress Jodie Foster in which he proclaimed his love and said “I am doing all of this for your sake.” On June 21, 1982, a federal jury in the District of Columbia found Mr. Hinckley not guilty by reason of insanity.
After the shooting, another FBI team went to George Washington Hospital, where Reagan was being treated, to recover whatever evidence they could. Like other presidents, he didn’t carry a wallet. But a card had fallen out of his pocket when medics cut his clothes off in the emergency room. It was the “authentication card,” which the president puts into the nuclear “football” to confirm his identity when he gives an order to launch. It was left on the floor in Reagan’s blood, and our agents picked it up.
A few days after the shooting, I got a visit from a supervisory agent in Secret Service headquarters. He told me we had to change some of our agents’ FD-302 interview reports, as “they make the service look bad.” I told him that’s something we simply don’t do.
Apart from that incident, the immediate investigation was handled smoothly and professionally. It succeeded in large part because everyone involved already knew each other: the FBI, the Metropolitan Police, the Secret Service and Fury’s team at the Hilton. Law-enforcement cooperation is a force multiplier: That is the most important lesson of that day.
Three major reforms occurred in the aftermath of the assassination attempt. First, public outrage at Mr. Hinckley’s acquittal led Congress to enact the Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984, which shifted the burden of proving insanity to the defense in federal criminal cases. Most states enacted similar legislation, and a few abolished the insanity defense altogether.
Second, the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1994 established the instant background-check system for gun purchases, which the FBI manages. The law was named for press secretary James Brady, who was permanently disabled by one of Mr. Hinckley’s bullets. Brady lived until 2014, but his death was ruled a homicide.
The third, less-publicized reform occurred internally at the Secret Service. Among other changes, the president’s daily schedule is no longer printed in the newspapers, and everyone attending presidential appearances is screened with metal detectors.
We also now know that on the day Reagan was shot, the Soviets canceled their planned invasion of Poland. Later meetings with Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II strengthened Reagan’s belief that God had spared his life for a greater purpose.
Mr. Baker is a retired FBI special agent and legal attaché
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
After almost 33-years’ service with the Bureau, in 1999, THOMAS J BAKER “retired” from the FBI while stationed overseas as the FBI’s Legal Attaché in Paris, France.
Appointed a Special Agent in 1967, his career includes tours of duty as a police instructor at the FBI’s Academy in Quantico, Virginia and, in 1981, as the Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge [ASAC] at the FBI’s Washington Field Office [WFO], he set up the Command Post [CP] investigating the attempted assassination of President RONALD REAGAN by JOHN HINCKLEY.
Assigned to the Office of Public Affairs for almost five -years, in 1987, he transferred to the U.S. Embassy, in Ottawa, Canada, and in 1990, was made Legal Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Canberra, where he handled matters “not” only on the Australian continent, but a number of Pacific island nations as well. In 1994, he was transferred to the U.S. Embassy in Paris, France, also as the FBI’s Legal Attaché, that also included managing the Bureau interests’ in Algeria and much of Africa.
For more information about Mr. BAKER, his profile can be found here at: https://fbiretired.com/agent/thomas-baker/
You can also follow Mr. BAKER on LinkedIn at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/thomas-j-baker-413b577/
And on Twitter at: https://www.twitter.com/@bakeassociates