Federal, State Law Enforcement Taking Social Media Threats of Post-Election Violence Seriously

While federal and state law enforcement authorities are taking seriously the swarm of threats of violence — including rioting and the assassination of President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, depending on who wins the election — that have been posted on social media websites in recent weeks by both left- and right-wing extremists, some political news organizations have dismissed the terrorization as, one said, "the wildly exaggerated and factually baseless fictions laid out by extreme factions in both parties should the other side win."
 
But the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), other federal and state law enforcement and intelligence officials who have been keeping track of the threats see the matter much differently. They told Homeland Security Today that they’re taking the threats "quite seriously," especially "the threats to kill the President and Gov. Romney," who as the GOP candidate, is protected by the Secret Service.

The officials said DHS Intelligence & Analysis directorate analysts monitoring publicly accessible social media through the department’s Social Networking/Media Capability (SNMC) have seen “a rise” in “disturbing … rhetoric” promoting and threatening violence and rioting if either Obama or Romney is elected President. Working out of the National Operations Center, SNMC program analysts are tasked with monitoring social media in order to provide 24/7 "situational awareness" of potential and evolving threats, and to issue alerts as warranted.

Federal officials said some of the “disturbing content” that’s been gleaned from social media monitoring has already been shared with appropriate federal, state and local law enforcement and intelligence agencies and intelligence fusion centers — and will continue to be shared depending on the judged seriousness of the threats.

"As crazy as some of these conspiracy theories are that accompany some of the threats on these websites, I can assure you that when someone’s threatening the President or advocating destruction of government property … or the kinds of things some of these people on these sites are threatening [or advocating], it’s something we take very seriously — we don’t roll our eyes at it," one official remarked.

The Washington, DC-based newspaper, The Hill, which covers Congress, reported last week though that interviews with metropolitan law enforcement officials found “Police departments around the nation are not anticipating civil unrest on election day despite arguments between liberals and conservatives over whether President Obama’s defeat could spark riots.”

But officials told Homeland Security Today that federal agencies like the Secret Service are actively investigating an undisclosed number of persons for having made “threatening remarks and statements” about both Obama and Romney via Twitter and Facebook accounts, personal blogs and other various forms of online social media such as forums and chat rooms.

The Weekly Standard reported last week that the Secret Service confirmed it is “aware” of the threats against Romney.

"The Secret Service is aware of this and will conduct appropriate follow up if necessary," said Secret Service spokesman Brian Leary.

Pursuant to Public Law 18 USC § 879, it is a felony punishable by a five-year prison term to “knowinglyand willfully threaten to kill … a major candidate for the office of President or Vice President," whether the person making the threat intends to follow through or not.

MSN.com reported last week that “An active subset of Twitter caught fire … with chilling assassination threats against presidential candidate Mitt Romney during and after the [last] debate … and though some are just massively failed jokes, all violate a federal law against threatening ‘a major candidate for the office of president or vice president.’ Romney has had Secret Service detail since winning the primary in Florida, but there is no word yet on how they might respond to these threats.”

The Secret Service “most definitely is taking this seriously,” sources said, and so, too, they added, is the FBI, which they said is aware of the “threats” and has used its various authorities to obtain from telecommunications companies the identities of specific individuals “of interest” because of what the officials described as “serious” terrorist-like threats they’ve made against both the President and Romney.

In June, 2009, Charlotte, North Carolina accountant Jerry Blanchard was sentenced to one year and one day in prison and stripped of his CPA license after having been arrested and charged by the Secret Service under 18 USC § 879 for having made public threats the year before to kill then candidate Obama. A federal affidavit acknowledged there was no evidence that Blanchard intended to carry out his threats.

However, in another case involving several Denver, Colo. men who’d threatened Obama in August 2008, US Attorney Troy Eid told reporters the threats the men made did not meet the legal standard to file charges for threatening a presidential candidate. They were charged instead for criminal possession of firearms.

"The law recognizes a difference between a true threat — that’s one that can be carried out — and the reported racist rants of drug abusers," Eid said at a news conference. Eid said the men had made the threats during a methamphetamine high, although they were arrested in possession of high-powered rifles, bulletproof vest, camouflage clothing, walkie-talkies and fake IDs and were staying at the Hyatt Regency Tech Center where they allegedly believed Obama was also staying.

Eid came under criticism for not pursuing charges against the men for threatening Obama, but charging a man already in prison for sending a threatening letter to Republican Presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, who, along with his running mate, Sarah Palin, received numerous death threats preceding the 2008 election.

Because of fears that some racist individual or group might try to kill Obama, the Secret Service provided the then Illinois Senator with protection at the beginning of his campaign in 2007.

“The issue of President Obama’s possible assassination originated with his candidacy,” resulting in “the Secret Service plac[ing] him under its protection earlier than any other presidential candidate – in May 2007, eighteen months before the 2008 presidential election,” noted Gregory S. Parks, a law clerk with the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, and Danielle C. Heard, a Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Stanford University Humanities Center and Assistant Professor of English at the University of California at Davis, when they wrote their August 2009 paper, “Assassinate the Nigger Ape[]:” Obama, Implicit Imagery and the Dire Consequences of Racist Jokes.

Parks and Heard wrote that “The Department of Homeland Security authorized his protection after consulting with a bipartisan congressional advisory committee. The security detail was not prompted by direct threats, but by general concerns about the safety of then-Senator Obama, as a prominent Black candidate. These concerns arose, in part, from the racist chatter found on White supremacist websites early in Obama’s candidacy.”

Based in part on DHS I&A social media monitoring analysis and other legal federal domestic intelligence collection efforts, the Federal Protective Service (FPS) has been preparing to beef up security at federal buildings across the nation, especially in designated “high risk” areas, to coincide with the presidential election results, authorities said.

In July, the DHS Office of Procurement Operations issued a solicitation for “riot gear” for the FPS that DHS said “The objective of [which] is … to prepare for the 2012 Democratic and Republican National Conventions, the 2013 Presidential Inauguration and other future similar activities.”

Online threats to engage in violent acts in response to a presidential election isn’t new, but the difference today is, according to authorities who’ve been involved in monitoring and analyzing recent social media threat"chatter," is they’re seeing what they described as a much more disturbing level of anger and hate.

Officials who agreed to talk to Homeland Security Today on the condition that they not be identified noted that national polls have indicated a far deeper and derisive schism between the nation’s conservative and liberal electorate than ever before.

In June, the Pew Research Center said “As Americans head to the polls this November, their values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years.”

A Pew poll conducted in the fall of 2011 found that “an overwhelming majority of” people born between 1928 and 1945 “are either angry or frustrated with government,” while the generation born between 1981 and 1993 – a segment of the population experiencing high rates of unemployment — “hold ‘baked in’ support for a more activist government.”

An August 2011 poll of voters of all ages found that “Fully 79 percent are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country. But “Even more (86 percent) say they are frustrated or angry with the federal government.”

Pew said “The share of Americans who describe themselves as angry with the federal government ha[d] nearly doubled since March [2011], from 14 percent to 26 percent, while those who [said] they are basically content ha[d] fallen by half, from 22 percent to 11 percent.”

If the social media “chatter”promoting violence against whoever wins the Presidency is any indication, authorities said there’s been an intensification of disturbing intolerance and extremism on both sides of the political fence that they said has them concerned.

One mid-afternoon earlier this month, someone fired a bullet through a window of an Obama field campaign office in Denver. Fortunately, no one was injured who was inside the office at the time.

Another Obama campaign office’s windows had Nazi Swastikas spray-painted on them. Automobiles with Obama for President bumper stickers have had their windows smashed.

In Ohio, a pile of manure was dumped in the parking lot of the Warren County, Ohio Democratic headquarters. In Virginia, Romney yard signs were smeared with excrement.

In New Berlin, Wisconsin, a Durham School Services bus driver was fired after telling a12-year-old boy he should have been aborted because his family has a Romney campaign sign in their yard.

But while some degree of these sorts of hostile actions have always occurred during presidential campaigns, authorities said they have not seen the level of apparently legitimate violent sentiment that’s openly been expressed via online social media during the 2012 presidential campaign. Consequently, law enforcement authorities are concerned. The Weekly Standard noted that Twitter “threats are numerous … explicit and graphic,” and that “many call for Romney’s murder or assassination.”

Twitchy.com, a site that monitors Tweets, said “Obama supporters renew[ed] vows to murder Mitt Romney” following the last Presidential debate, and listed numerous Tweets that were made on Oct. 17.

Catholic Online earlier reported that “… threats have gone viral on Twitter, with Obama supporters retweeting and pledging their arms to riot in the streets if he is not reelected. The volume of viral traffic on the network suggests the threat is genuine.”

This reporter searched Twitter with several specialized Twitter search engines using the keywords “Romney,” “Obama,” “kill,” “shoot,” “riot” and other terms to denote violence, and found scores of original Tweets and re-Tweets advocating violent behavior against both the President and Romney. Many more of the Tweets, though, were, in fact, directed against Romney.

Federal authorities said they have legitimate concerns about potential violence by both right-wing and left-wing extremists – especially avowed left-wing “anarchists” — depending on who wins the presidential election.

Several groups of avowed anarchists were indicted earlier this year for plotting to carry out domestic terrorist attacks to coincide with the two parties’ national conventions, including bombings of federal and corporate buildings.

Federal, state and local law enforcement authorities maintain they have legitimate, intelligence-grounded reasons to be worried about, at the very least, possible pockets of violence following what admittedly has become one of the most contentious presidential races splitting the electorate in recent history.

"We can’t afford to take our cues from pundits or anyone else who insists it’s all just a bunch of hooey and politics as usual. These are very serious threats whenever you start talking about a lot of people advocating killing the President or Mr. Romney," said a senior law enforcement domestic intelligence analyst who has been monitoring threats via online social media. "We’d be derelict if we weren’t taking these threats seriously … I don’t care how outlandish some of them appear."

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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