Threats Against Obama Drop to Normal Levels

The mass shooting at Fort Hood by an Army doctor with an Islamic background has raised new anxiety about terrorism and threats to government personnel and installations. But the people assigned to protect President Barack Obama say that in recent months, the number of threats against him has decreased significantly. In a book about the U.S. Secret Service published earlier this year, author Ronald Kessler reported that after Obama took office, threats against the president rose by 400 percent from a rate of around 3,000 per year during the tenure of George W. Bush. According to one widely circulated elaboration on Kessler’s reporting published in August by London’s Daily Telegraph, this means that Obama has been facing 30 death threats each day. In March, Secret Service chief Mark Sullivan told a House Appropriations subcommittee that threats to individuals protected by the Secret Service “remain at high levels.”

Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan told NEWSWEEK that those figures are now out of date. According to Donovan, there were “substantial spikes” in the rate of threats the service received against Obama before and after last year’s presidential election, and then again before and after Obama’s inauguration last January. Over succeeding months, however, the rate of threats has dropped substantially, Donovan saidso substantially that while the average number of threats received is running at about the same level as it did during the presidencies of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, on some recent days the rate of threats received against Obama has actually been lower than the rate during the reigns of Clinton and W.

Donovan said that it was almost unprecedented for the Secret Service to discuss threat levels in such detail, but said the agency is going public because it is concerned that outdated information continues to circulate regarding a tidal wave of Obama-related threats. For his part, Kessler told NEWSWEEK in an e-mail that while “threats go up and down … the 400 percent increase is correct on average” and added that the Secret Service has been “covering up its deficiencies and dissembling to the media in the face of increased threats against the president.”

Donovan said the Secret Service won’t attempt to explain why threats against Obama have dropped off. Two U.S. counterterrorism officials, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, said that while they could not speak for the Secret Service, some of the drop in the threats against the president could be explained by a reduction this year in messages from international terrorist spokesmen, including Osama bin Laden and top sidekicks like Ayman al-Zawahiri and U.S.-born Al Qaeda propagandist Adam Gadahn. In the runup to the speech Obama gave in June in Cairo seeking a rapprochement between the U.S. and the Islamic world, there was a flurry of Al Qaeda broadsides against Obama, which some analysts characterized as an effort to preempt Obama’s appeal. Since then, anti-Obama diatribes from Al Qaeda and other international extremists have tapered off, though not disappeared. One of the counterterrorism officials suggested the reduction in Al Qaeda threats could be because bin Laden and co. have been knocked “off balance” by military pressure from the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The plurality of threats against Obama were widely believed to originate with racists or other ultra-right-wing extremists angered by the ascent of an African-American president. Last year’s Democratic Party presidential convention in Denver was marred by the arrest of a trio of amphetamine-addled racists who talked about shooting Obama with high-powered rifles. Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a private group which monitors right-wing extremism, says that the Secret Service’s account of the election and inauguration period surges in anti-Obama threats sounds plausible. “Certainly, it does seem that the two periods they identify is when we were hearing the most about this rage out there,” Potok said.

Explanations for the drop in threats are harder to come by. Jerrold Post, a psychiatrist once assigned to evaluate people who threatened the White House, said that, “in general it is the more charismatic leaders who are especially vulnerable” to death threats; therefore, Dr. Post said, he found the drop in threats surprising. University of Virginia politics professor Larry Sabato speculates that maybe anti-Obama rabble-rousers like Glenn Beck are actually “healthy” for the president in that they offer an outlet for the most extreme extremists to vent their anger without engaging in violence.