As campaign rhetoric boils and Americans on both sides of the political divide hurl insults, law enforcement officials are watching social media carefully for threats or signs of violence.
“Historically, it’s the same issues we’ve always had and the same things people are upset about,” Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan said. “There are just a lot more venues for people to put it out there, including the Internet.”
Last week, a group of Arizona men, including a Peoria, Ariz., police sergeant, triggered a federal investigation when they appeared in a photo posted on Facebook with weapons and what appears to be a bullet-riddled image of President Obama. The sergeant has been removed from patrol and assigned to desk duties pending an internal investigation.
The Secret Service on Wednesday assigned protection to Mitt Romney, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination. Republican contender Herman Cain, who has dropped out of the race, had also received federal potection.
The Secret Service assesses every potential threat or what Sullivan calls “inappropriate interest” to determine if someone is simply mouthing off or intends to act. The agency won’t say how many threats it fields. “We are very aggressive in running it down,” Sullivan said.
The agency established an Internet threat desk in 2000, spokesman Ed Donovan said. “Logic dictates we receive more information to sift through and look at, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to more cases,” he said.
Donald Tucker, a Phoenix private investigator who served as a Secret Service agent for 25 years, says he’s stunned by the level of incivility and disrespect. He said he fears the nasty rhetoric could trigger violence.
“I have never seen any political campaign with the type of hatred, animosity and language directed not only at the protectees, but also at the president of the United States,” Tucker said.
“It seems as if there’s a lack of respect for the office of the presidency,” he said.