Threat Assessment – Preventing Assassination

Secret Service Special Agents and Special Officers (foreground) protecting the President of the United States, George W. Bush in 2007.

Threat Assessment, a dynamic behavior-based tool for law enforcement, has replaced assassin profiles as a tool to gauge the risk individuals pose toward public figures.

“It is a myth to think that there is a profile of American Assassins and near-assassins,” a Secret Agent declared on 60 Minutes. Though historians might disagree, it will be conceded that the business of history to is describe the past. The business of the Secret Service, on the other hand, is to protect the lives of public servants. Thus, there is an abiding personal interest in understanding what kinds of people, under what circumstances, pose a threat to those they guard. In terms of predictability, profiles have provided wisdom only in hindsight.

New Light on the Violence Prediction Model

Beginning in the 1990s, following two successful, embarrassing breaches of White House security, the Secret Service began to look at the assassination of public figures in terms of Threat Assessment. The result was a shift in thinking in the violence prediction model. A series of articles linked to the Secret Service website detail the results of the Secret Service Exceptional Case Study Project. They started by ditching past researchers’ time-worn theory that the larger the population, the more reliable the study. Included in these statistical models were a great many, often conveniently housed mental hospitals, who merely uttered threats against public persons, compared to the few relatively few actual attackers, who tended to be dead. The ECSP, for the first time, used only those who had crossed the “action threshold.” They found 84 of these, obtaining much information through public records, but some attackers, such as Arthur Bremer (George Wallace) and Mark Chapman (John Lennon), were interviewed.

Threat Assessment Guidelines Are Born

Threat Assessment allows law enforcement to see “dangerousness” in a different light, not as a part of the individual’s character but as a dynamic, contextual and progressive, following a series of predictable steps. This model could be applied not only to assassins of public figures, but also to perpetrators of other Exceptional Cases, rare but equally devastating events: workplace and school shootings. Suddenly patterns emerged that moved all three types of events from random acts of Lone Nuts into the range of the predictable and, as such, theoretically, preventable.

Three Conceptual Principles

Threat Assessment is based on three principles. First, “acts of targeted violence are neither impulsive nor spontaneous.” They are the result of a process of thinking and behavior, which can be identified and to an extent understood. Second, “violence stems from an interaction among the potential attacker, past stressful events, a current situation, and the target.” The individual exists in a context, defined by recent loss. The amount of loss suffered in the past and how has the loss been dealt with are crucial. The red flag in this category is whether a mind under stress can attribute the recurring loss to the target.

The third principle encompasses “attack-related behaviors.” Once the target as been assigned responsibility for the loss, the action phase begins, to remove the target and heal the loss. The potential assassin begins to make plans. Regardless of their degree of mental instability, all assassins seem to have managed to plan their course of action carefully—the failure, if it comes, is in the details. They may study other plans, stalk the target, make careful notes in a diary. They acquire weapons and become proficient with them. Plans are often communicated to family, friends, or total strangers in bars. Lynette Fromme (Ford) repeatedly wrote the judge from the Manson trial, warning him that she was going to do something desperate. Both Sarah Jane Moore (Ford) and Samuel Byck (Nixon) received visits from the Secret Service after their threats against the President were overheard, yet agents saw no more than a housewife at loose ends, a pudgy tire salesman depressed over his divorce. Today the very fact of these incidents would start an investigation.

As the criteria for threat assessment began to be developed, they were very telling, for it immediately became clear that many if not all of the presidential assassinations might have been prevented if these criteria had been in place during the period of time leading up to the event. Not only Moore and Byck, but many of America’s most famous assassins came to the attention of authorities in the days before the acts were carried out; some were interviewed repeatedly. Hinckley (Reagan) was apprehended going through an airport with a suitcase full of guns; the guns were confiscated but he was let go. When John Wilkes Booth’s presence was reported at the notorious St Lawrence Hall conference, where all the major players of the Confederate secret services assembled in one spot, Booth was dismissed by the Secretary of War himself as being a “nut case.” Threat Assessment guidelines show that nut cases it turns out are just the type of people that need to be watched the most closely.

The Future

Despite the guidelines, resources are stretched, and security is breached. An attractively dressed couple show fake invitations. They are not on the list? The list must be wrong. They are waved through, get into a state luncheon, shake the President’s hand. They are not assassins–but they might have been. There is no way every scenario can be accounted for. What Lincoln observed may still be true today: “If it is to be done, it is impossible to prevent it.”


  1. Borum, Randy, Robert Fein, Bryan Vossekuil, and John Berglund. “Threat Assessment: Defining an Approach for Evaluating Risk of Targeted Violence.” Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 1999. 17: 323-337.
  2. Fein, Robert A., and Bryan Vossekuil. “Assassination in the United States: An Operational Study of Recent Assassins, Attackers, and Near-Lethal Approachers.” Journal of Forensic Sciences, 44.2 (1999): 321-333.
  3. Fein, Robert A., and Bryan Vossekuil. Protective Intelligence Threat Assessment Investigations: A Guide for State and Local Law Enforcement Officials. Washington: DC: US Department of Justice, 1998.
  4. Pelley, Scott (reporter). “Protecting the President.”
  5. Schorn, Daniel. “Mind Of The Assassin: Scott Pelley On How The Secret Service Studies.”