The Secret Service and the Obama Death Threat

During a heated moment in his final presidential debate with Sen. John McCain, Sen. Barack Obama noted the anger of some supporters at rallies for McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. "All the public reports suggested," Obama said, that people shouted "things like 'terrorist' and 'kill him'." Making a death threat against a presidential candidate can be a crime. But even before Obama cited "reports" of the threats at the debate, the U.S. Secret Service had told media outlets, including NEWSWEEK, that it was unable to corroborate accounts of the "kill him" remarks—and according to a law-enforcement official, who asked for anonymity when discussing a political matter, the Obama campaign knew as much. Now some officials are disgruntled that Obama gave added credence to the threat by mentioning it in front of 60 million viewers. At this point in the campaign, said one, candidates will "say anything to make a particular point."

During a warm-up speech for Palin at an Oct. 15 rally in Scranton, Pa., a journalist with the city's Times-Tribune paper, David Singleton, reported hearing someone say "kill him"; he told NEWSWEEK that the remark was made casually, rather than angrily, by a male voice. Singleton stands by his account, but he acknowledges that he was unable to identify who made the remark. Secret Service spokesman Eric Zahren says his agency examined videotape from an earlier Palin event in Clearwater, Fla., at which a similar threat was supposedly made, and concluded that the voice could've been saying "tell him" or "tell them." But Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank, who was in Clearwater, said "the guy was a few feet in front of me … '[T]ell him' doesn't make any sense as a response to what Palin was saying." An Obama campaign spokesman told NEWSWEEK that "whether or not the [Secret Service] is investigating that particular comment is irrelevant. What is true is that the tone of the rhetoric at McCain-Palin campaign events has gotten out of hand."