Twenty years ago this spring, on March 30, 1981, President Ronald Reagan was shot by a young man named John W. Hinckley Jr. while leaving a Washington hotel. The time was 2:30 p.m. As the President's national-security adviser, I was informed of the shooting almost at once and went immediately to the White House.
A crowd of shocked but curious White House staff members had gathered in the office of James A. Baker, Reagan's chief of staff. Baker himself was at the hospital, along with the White House counselor Edwin Meese. Secretary of State Alexander Haig arrived at the White House shortly after I did. I asked Haig, Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan, the White House counsel Fred F. Fielding, the domestic adviser Martin Anderson, and David Gergen, a member of the White House staff, to accompany me to the Situation Room, located in the basement of the White House, secure behind electronic locks and guarded by uniformed Secret Service agents. That would prevent superfluous staffers from barging into the meeting, limit leaks, and effectively activate "crisis management," about which there had been a major flap only a few days before, when the White House made the decision to entrust that function to Vice President George Bush, much to Haig's consternation. The group was soon joined by Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger; Attorney General William French Smith; Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis; Richard Darman, a presidential deputy assistant; and Admiral Daniel Murphy, the Vice President's chief of staff. At about 3:30 Meese called from the hospital. He reaffirmed that "the national command authority" rested with Cap Weinberger, in the absence of the Vice President, and said that "Al is to calm other governments."
All we knew in the first hour was that the President had been shot. We had virtually no information about the assailant or his motives, or about whether he had acted alone. Vice President Bush was in the air over Texas. (I remember vividly the image of Haig, in a trench coat, shouting over a bad connection, "George, it's Al ... turn around ... turn around!") Bush was on his way back, but he had no means of secure voice communications from his aircraft. The first assessments by the Pentagon revealed that more Soviet submarines than usual were off the East Coast.
By tradition, and to encourage complete candor in the most-secret discussions and exchanges, there are no tape recorders allowed in the Situation Room's conference area. On this occasion, however, I considered a recording to be absolutely essential in order to preserve an indisputable record. I instructed my top assistant, Janet Colson, to bring my personal tape recorder to the conference room. The tape recorder was placed in the center of the table, in plain view of all participants. There was no surreptitious taping of this event, and no one objected. Following are selections from some of these tapes. They are being made public for the first time, twenty years after the event.
In the interest of military readiness, Weinberger sought to take prudent security measures without raising the defensive condition—"Defcon," which has five stages, 5 being normal except for the U.S. Strategic Command (formerly the Strategic Air Command) and forces in Korea, whose normal condition is 4. After discussion about the location of the "football"—a briefcase containing the nuclear release-code sequences that is always at the President's side—Haig began to question Weinberger about the security measures.
COLSON: Someone out there wants to know if you want the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
ALLEN: I don't think we need him here ... Cap is the—Cap is here.
HAIG: Cap is the—and the football is near the Vice President—so that's fine.
ALLEN: We should get one over here. We have a duplicate one here.
HAIG: Get the football over here.
ALLEN: There is one at the military aide's office. The football is in the closet ... I don't think we need the Chair of the Joint Chiefs over here, do you? Let's leave him over at the NMCC [National Military Command Center, at the Pentagon]. This is a draft statement, but I want to put something else in it.
FIELDING: Do you want any other Cabinet members?
ALLEN: No, they should all be told to stand by. Here's the copy of that draft statement [on the President's condition]. You don't want the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs over here?
WEINBERGER: Well, I want ... not over here, I want him ...
ALLEN: At the NMCC.
WEINBERGER: Yeah, and they should go on alert or be ready to go on alert. SAC [the Strategic Air Command] went on alert with Kennedy's assassination.
The group paused to watch Gergen's briefing from the press room. The conversation moved on for a time to Hinckley and to the condition of the press secretary, Jim Brady, badly wounded in the shooting. (At a later point in the tapes Regan observed, apropos of Hinckley's attack, "Hand-gun control—we better think that policy through again in light of this. I'll have to testify on this, so we better get something started on hand-gun control.") The discussion then returned to national security.
HAIG: We'll be on a straight line from the hospital. So anything that is said, before it's said, we'll discuss at this table ... and any telephone calls that anybody is getting with instructions from the hospital come to this table first [raising voice] ... RIGHT HERE! And we discuss it and know what's going on.
WEINBERGER: I have the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs coming on, Jones, in just a second. We're going to tell him to get alerts to the Strategic Air Command and such other units that seem to him to be desirable at this point.
HAIG: What kind of alert, Cap?
WEINBERGER: It's a standby alert ... just a standby alert.
HAIG: You're not raising readiness?
WEINBERGER: No, but the main thing is that he should stay there in the Command Center. Not here.
DARMAN: Is that information not to be released up till ...
ALLEN: It'll leak ...
WEINBERGER: Well, until we know more about it. The alert, they'll probably put themselves on alert, but I just want to be sure.
HAIG: Do we have a football here? Do we?
ALLEN: Right there.
REGAN: Al! Don't elevate it! Be careful!
HAIG: Absolutely! Absolutely! That's why I toned down the message that was going out ... there's no reason for that.
WEINBERGER: Yeah, I don't think anything that talks about continuity of government or anything ... that sounds like we know a lot more than we do.
REGAN: This is apt to turn out to be a loner.
WEINBERGER: I think it was!
MURPHY: Cap, what do they mean by "alert"?
WEINBERGER: Well, an alert is ...
MURPHY: We've been down this path once before with Henry [Kissinger].
WEINBERGER: That's right. The alert simply is that there are conditions which may require very quick actions.
MURPHY: Are you sure that doesn't mean Defcon Three ... or Four?
WEINBERGER: No, no ... I'll fill in ... It's a matter of being ready for some later call ...
HAIG: Yeah, I think the important thing, fellows, is that these things always generate a lot of dope stories, and everybody is running around telling everybody everything that they can get out of their gut ... and I think it's goddamn important that none of that happens. The President, uh, as long as he is conscious and can function ...