AS HUNDREDS OF LOCAL and federal law enforcement officials prepare to toss a protective net over Seattle for global leaders attending the World Trade Organization meetings in two weeks, they intend to avoid a repeat of a previously undisclosed national security gaffe that allowed a Burien man, suspected of threatening Vice President Al Gore's life, to elude them during the vice president's visit to a Burien school last year. (Where was the suspect this week when Gore visited Microsoft?)
A King County Sheriff's report says the mishandling of the June 12, 1998, threat caused the county to lead the Secret Service down the wrong trail and "made our department look inept, amateurish, and untrustworthy."
Ron Legan, agent in charge of the Seattle Secret Service office, calls the goof a rarity and says his agents got the correct information on the suspect—"it turned out not to be anything life threatening"—but only after Gore had come and gone.
According to recently obtained internal sheriff's department documents, a caller first told Seattle police the suspect was armed, acting weird, and had indicated he planned to kill Gore. But a county 911 operator took down the information incorrectly from a Seattle 911 operator who almost didn't pass along the report in the first place.
"I was just gonna kinda slough it off as a 220," code for a crazy, the SPD operator told the sheriff's operator on the phone (the caller in Burien had mistakenly phoned the SPD instead of the county, which patrols the Burien area). "I just said, well, disregard, and sitting here thinking about it, well, vice president coming in, I better at least see [that] somebody be aware of it."
Gore was arriving that day to promote Clinton educational incentives and help Sen. Patty Murray raise funds for what proved to be her successful reelection in November. Besides the fundraiser that night in Seattle, Gore appeared during the day with Murray, Gov. Gary Locke, and other Democratic bigwigs at Burien's Happy Valley Elementary School.
There's no indication either operator knew that Gore would be in the same area as the suspect. The SPD operator told the county operator the suspect lived "on First Avenue South by a school there, that [he] has a gun and has been making, [the caller] thinks, some kind of threats and all this about Vice President Gore." Happy Valley school is four blocks off First Avenue South.
The confused county operator apparently told a radio dispatcher the suspect was the caller in the phone booth. A patrol officer performed an area check but made no contact. Later that day, federal agents with corrected info from the county and SPD located the suspect, who was determined not to be a threat, but Gore had already apparently left Burien. "I'm not sure of the time frame," says the Secret Service's Legan.
The caller, says a report on the incident, had "provided a [suspect] name, employer, and information about weapons. The SPD operator relayed all this to [the county operator] yet the detail she wrote woefully misstates the facts and entirely leaves out relevant information." County legal specialist Kyle Aiken says the operator received a written reprimand.