Presidential protection: Is there a flaw in system?

The attack on Ronald Reagan is raising fundamental questions about the way presidents are protected. Officials acknowledge that in a democratic society, there will be "trade-offs" between complete protection and the desire of elected leaders to mingle with the public. But last week's assassination attempt points up basic flaws in the way this balance is reached.

Among the criticisms being voiced here:

* Lack of proper communication between the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Secret Service.

* Unclear lines of authority between the Secret Service and the White House regarding security.

* Heavy reliance by the Secret Service on less-experienced local law-enforcement officials.

* Privacy considerations that may be hampering the intelligence gathering necessary to prevent assassination attempts.

So far, Secret Service actions immediately following the wounding of the President and three others a week ago have brought only praise. Before the shooting began, however, the picture is less clear.

The alleged assailant was arrested last October in Nashville, trying to board a commercial airliner carrying three handguns. Then-candidate Ronald Reagan had canceled a trip there just two days earlier, and President Carter was in town at the time.

Local officials reported the incident to the FBI, which should have notified the Secret Service. The message apparently got no further than Memphis, according to a congressional source who has been briefed by top FBI officials. As yet, the FBI is not commenting on the matter.

Had the Secret Service been told, Director H. Stuart Knight told a congressional hearing last week, it could have established that the man charged in last week's shooting also had belonged to a Nazi group and been under psychiatric care.

He then would likely have been added to the list of individuals considered potentially dangerous to Secret Service protectees.

There was some initial question about why the alleged assailant was with reporters and camera technicians so close to the President. In fact, no specially secured press area had been established at the Washington Hilton Hotel.

Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan, the Cabinet secretary who oversees the Secret Service, told a House of Representatives subcommittee that the Secret Service has "the last word" in whether such areas should be set up to limit close access to the President.

Several hours later, however, Secret Service Director Knight told a Senate subcommittee hearing that the White House staff has the final say in such matters. Like the press itself, the White House staff typically leans toward more lenient restrictions in the interest of better news coverage.

Knight also acknowledged that the Secret Service relies heavily on local police officers. Such persons do not have the same intensive training or practical experience as special agents in protecting the President and other prominent figures.

Secret Service agents are trained to concentrate on the crowds of people from which an attack could come. Photographs taken just before last week's attack show the officers closest to the alleged assailant -- both District of Columbia policemen -- looking away from the crowd and toward Mr. Reagan.

The Warren Commission 16 years ago concluded that the FBI had withheld from the Secret Service information on Lee Harvey Oswald in the assassination of President Kennedy.

While acknowledging that he would like to have had the FBI's information on John Warnock Hinckley Jr. (the man charged with shooting President Reagan), Knight says, "We have the best relationship now with the FBI that we have ever had.'

Knight blames Justice Department guidelines, along with the Privacy and Freedom of Information acts for "severely" reducing the amount of intelligence information the FBI can pass along to the Secret Service.

The Secret Service traditionally has gotten most of the budget help it wants from Capitol Hill. This support may be intensified now. Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona says he will "vigorously pursue legislative remedies . . . particularly in the area of information and intelligence gathering."

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