Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Boston Globe: Secret Service strained as leaders face more threats

The unprecedented number of death threats against President Obama, a rise in racist hate groups, and a new wave of antigovernment fervor threaten to overwhelm the US Secret Service, according to government officials and reports, raising new questions about the 144-year-old agency’s overall mission.

The Secret Service is tracking a far broader range of possible threats to the nation’s leaders, the officials said, even as it also investigates financial crimes such as counterfeiting as part of its original mandate.

The new demands are leading some officials, both inside and outside the agency, to raise the possibility of the service curtailing or dropping its role in fighting financial crime to focus more on protecting leaders and their families from assassination attempts and thwarting terrorist plots aimed at high-profile events.

The report, which was provided to the Globe, said such a review should look at how money and staff are allocated, and whether some of the agency’s functions and workers should be transferred to the Treasury Department.

Already, there are signs of strain on the agency, officials said. Budget documents submitted to Congress this year said the agency lacks the necessary technology to keep up with threats.

Asked about the concerns, Special Agent Edwin Donovan, a Secret Service spokesman, said that though “there is no doubt the protection mission has grown,’’ the agency can still fulfill both its missions.

Its mission soon expanded to investigating the Ku Klux Klan and conducting counterespionage operations during the Spanish-American War and World War I.

The domestic threat is also growing, fueled in part by Obama’s election as the nation’s first black president, according to specialists who study homegrown radical movements.

Obama, who was given Secret Service protection 18 months before the election - the earliest ever for a presidential candidate - has been the target of more threats since his inauguration than his predecessors.

Two days before Obama’s appearance at San Francisco fund-raisers on Thursday, a 59-year-old Northern California man was indicted on charges of sending a racist, profanity-filled e-mail threatening to kill Obama and his family. The rambling e-mail included specific references to Michelle Obama and the phrase, “do it to his children and family first in front of him,’’ according to the indictment.

The Southern Poverty Law Center says that antigovernment militias and white supremacist groups have strengthened in recent years, responding to an increasingly diverse population and what they see as an expanding government.

“A key difference this time is that the federal government - the entity that almost the entire radical right views as its primary enemy - is headed by a black man,’’ the report said. “One result has been a remarkable rash of domestic terror incidents since the presidential campaign, most of them related to anger over the election of Barack Obama.’’

Threatening language has also found its way into talk radio broadcasts and social networking websites, raising fears that individuals not normally considered threats to the president could be incited to violence.

“The racist extremist fringe is exploiting themes that strike a chord in the mainstream more than we have seen in the recent past,’’ said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University-San Bernardino, citing several elected leaders who have questioned whether Obama is a US citizen eligible to be president.

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