FBI's Webster: go slow on lifting intelligence curbs
Washington — FBI Director William Webster is cautioning against overreaction to last week's presidential assassination attempt by relaxing controls on the domestic gathering and dissemination of intelligence on Americans.
Secret Service Director H. Stuart Knight complained that "the pendulum has swung too far" with recent curbs on whom the FBI may watch and what information can be passed along to the Secret Service. At a breakfast meeting with reporters April 9, Mr. Webster also talked about the pressure that has been mounting to allow the FBI greater latitude regarding the Privacy and Freedom of Information Acts.
"We have to balance all needs as to the values we seek to protect," he cautioned. He does not foresee major changes in these laws or the stricter US attorney general's guidelines that followed domestic intelligence gathering abuses several years ago.
At the same time, however, the FBI is undergoing some "self-second guessing" as to how it could improve on its actions both before and after last week's shooting, and Webster does predict some changes here.
The decision not to pass along to the Secret Service information on an earlier incident involving alleged assailant John Hinckley was made by an FBI clerk. Mr. Hinckley was arrested in Nashville last October for trying to board a commercial airliner with three handguns in his possession. President Carter was in town at the time and Ronald Reagan had left two days before. Both men were headed for New York, as was Hinckley.
The clerk's decision was made on the basis of the local US attorney's guideline that such incidents do not violate the federal Air Piracy Act. That guideline -- and especially whether it should be established at a national rather than local level -- now is under review.
At this point, Webster told reporters, the FBI "is not ruling out" the possibility that Hinckley may have been "stalking" Carter or Reagan.
The FBI chief also said the exploding "Devastator" bullets used in the assassination attempt were "absolutely unknown" to his agency or to the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Bureau of the Treasury Department. Federal agencies have been criticized for not providing this information to hospital authorities until three days after the shooting.
Webster said federal regulations require bullet manufacturers -- but not those who modify bullets to make them more deadly -- to report on their products.
"I'm sure that people will have a look at that," he added.
He conceded that there is "no way of eliminating" the possibility of presidential assassination. "It's a little like asking, 'Can you rehabilitate a criminal?'" he said. "You have to try."
On other subjects, Webster made these points:
* Gun control. "We've got an awful lot of guns in this country, and that doesn't make anybody's job any easier. There are a lot of arguments that can be made for and against gun control, but the assassination of a president probably is not the best time to provide good solutions to this tough problem."
* Atlanta's child slayings. He is "confident" they will be solved. "I want to be careful not to raise any expectations as to an early end to this, but we are not out of leads." Webster does not approve of the armed "bat brigades" that some have formed in Atlanta. He favors "neighborhood watches" "the most helpful form of citizen participation."