The service has unique expertise in predicting violence, because as the agency's director, Brian Stafford, told 60 Minutes II in March, it's dealing with more threats than anyone knows. This report, originally broadcast in March, aired Aug. 15 in a shorter form. The following story is the longer version.
For about five years the intelligence division of the Secret Service, charged with protecting the president, has combed the nation's prisons and mental hospitals, asking assassins and would-be assassins what drove them to violence, 60 Minutes II's Scott Pelley reports.
Twenty-five times a month, the Secret Service checks out someone who seems to have an unusual interest in the president, according to director Brian Stafford.
Every year the president receives 3,000 threats, he said. The intelligence division sorts through these threats and decides which are real. This is not a simple job.
"It's a myth to think that there is a profile of American assassins and near-assassins," said Secret Service psychologist Robert Fein.
Along with Secret Service agent Bryan Vossekuil, Fein went to prisons and mental hospitals across the country, taping interviews with those who had either tried or come close to trying to assassinate the president or another public figure. They found 83 people who had done one or the other over the past 50 years.
Among those they interviewed were Arthur Bremmer, who paralyzed George Wallace, and Mark David Chapman, who murdered John Lennon. Agents also intensively studied John Hinckley, who shot President Reagan.
Fein said that attacks on public officials are not impulsive actions. They typically occur, after weeks or months of planning, he says.
Vossekuil and Fein called that planning the "pathway to attack." They believe that understanding this pathway is the key to stopping assassins before they strike. Most would-be assassins are driven by similar motives and follow a common course of planning. That idea has revolutionized the understanding of assassination.
The study, called "The Exceptional Case Study Project," began after several close calls. During the 1980s, the Secret Service discovered four stalkers shadowing presidents. These people didn't fit the standard profile.
One of those four was a man that the agents call "J.D." He stalked the president across the country for three years and robbed banks to pay for the travel.
"The persistence and the sophistication that he showed in his efforts were very sobering," Vossekuil said.
J.D. was once a bright medical student. But after a mental breakdown, he became convinced that aliens controlled his life. The aliens gave him a choice: to killittle children or assassinate the president. If he didn't, he would be poisoned by the aliens.
He stalked the president with a .38 caliber handgun. For camouflage, he dressed like a law enforcement officer. "I brought the suit, the shoes," J.D. said in an interview with the agents. "And bought a trench coat and had a hair cut. And then, I went, north up above Flint, [Mich.,] because I was looking for a location where I could test fire the gun."
J.D. never opened fire because he couldn't find a way through the last line of defense: the president's security team.
To show that would-be killers often look and act no different than other people do, Vossekuil and Fein regularly show a videotape of the interview to agents.
The agents who shadow the president are trained in a town built by the Secret Service outside Washington.
The training center, set up after the Kennedy assassination, relies on realism to teach agents their jobs. In one motorcade drill, for example, the agents are not told whether they will face an attack, when it might come or how. The center covers 400 acres and has an airport with a life-size mockup of the president's plane, Air Force One.
The service believes that agents will lose their edge without this kind of intense training. Even the most experienced agents are retrained again and again.
Based on the interviews with real assassins, these agents are now taught that their gunman is probably suicidal and convinced he has nothing to lose.
"A number of them saw themselves as backed into a corner, in despair and without much hope," Vossekuil said. "They got to that point through, inevitably, a set of sad experiences: life reversals, financial reversals, family situations that were quite unhappy, some instances of child abuse."
"They tended to see attack, assassination as an acceptable way and possibly a successful way to resolve whatever desperation, whatever problem they were struggling with," Fein said.
Many of those the pair studied had switched targets during their quest. Arthur Bremmer, for example, initially targeted President Nixon before deciding to shoot Wallace. John Hinckley stalked President Carter during the 1980 campaign.
The study revealed not only similar motives but similar planning. Not one of the assassins ever sent a direct threat to their intended target. Most, however, told someone close to them something about their plans. Many spent months or years planning. Some tried to learn about previous assassins. A few wrote to their predecessors.
The service is using its new knowledge to teach agents how to discern a real threat from a run-of-the-mill unstable person.
In one exercise, psychotherapist David Swink, who has been training agents for more than a decade, portrays someone who has mailed a threatening letter to the White House. He says he believes the president is Satan.
"Kill Satan. Send him back thell," Swink told the agent during the exercise.
Another psychotherapist, Barry Spodek, helps agents analyze the man's delusions, which in one case, was that an angel named Claire is telling him what to do. One key, Spodek said, is to find out whether there is any evidence that the man is carrying out "the angel's" directions: Has the subject actually made any plans to carry out his orders?
These are the kinds of questions agents are asking these days in interviews. Does the person who made a threat actually pose a threat?
All over the country, Secret Service agents have established ongoing relationships with suspects and even arranged for counseling and psychiatric care. The Intelligence Division manages these people, sometimes for years, and keeps track of where they are and what's on their minds.
What surprised Vossekuil most, he said, was that those he monitors are so ordinary: "We didn't find demons or evil people."
Vossekuil said that many of the people they interviewed felt remorse.
Police departments want to know whether they can spot people planning attacks on schools, churches and offices even before they strike. Departments all over the country snapped up 28,000 guides to the study.
The guide's message: When tracking a stalker, pay attention to what they do, not who they are. "The age range [of those we interviewed] was 16 to 73," Fein said. "[There were] men and women, a variety of backgrounds and ethnic backgrounds. More than half had gone to some degree of college. Fewer than 25 percent had ever been arrested for any offense involving a weapon. They didn't fit any profile."
Stafford, the director, said that the study is extremely useful to agents. "[It is] probably a more significant tool than the weapons [we use]," he said. "If the weapons come out, we've already ailed."
To find out how the Secret Service is trying to help prevent school shootings, go on to Secret Service Studies School Shootings.