24 April 2010

Where That Number Came From

On Thursday I posted an analysis of the rumors about recent US Presidents and presidential candidates catalogued on Snopes.com, and how there are many more rumors and false rumors about President Barack Obama than his predecessor. To my surprise, Salon picked that up for its readers.

The folks at Salon were concerned about this statement: “the Secret Service reported a 400% increase in threats to the President when Barack Obama took office.”

They substituted another sentence with a link I supplied: “there was a disturbing spike in death threats to the president in the months after President Barack Obama took office.” Which works just as well.

I decided to revisit the 400% statistic in more detail. It appeared in Ronald Kessler’s book In the President’s Secret Service, published in the summer of 2009. Kessler had the cooperation of the agency and (off the record) past and present agents. He’d written many similar books on Washington doings, including a flattering election-year profile of the George W. Bush White House and an authorized biography of Laura Bush. He blogs for the right-wing news service Newsmax. Politically, Kessler has no reason to overstate violence or threats from the American right.

Three of Kessler’s points made the most news:

  • “There were about 3,000 threats a year under President Bush and now there are about 12,000,” as Kessler told CNN in October 2009.
  • The agency was “cutting corners” on security because of budget limitations.
  • Agents occasionally saw the President sneaking a cigarette.
This article from the London Telegraph shows the worldwide attention that In the President’s Secret Service received.

When Kessler spoke about his book with CBS News, the agency issued a statement denying some of what he had written:
Any suggestion that the Secret Service has “cut corners” in carrying our protective mission is just false. It is always difficult to defend your record against anonymous sources. However, it should be noted that we currently dedicate more personnel, funding and technical assets to our protective mission than at any time in our history and our protective measures and methods continue to increase in scope and complexity, not diminish.
So far as I can tell, the agency didn’t then address the 400% figure, only the “cutting corners” suggestion. Indeed, at that point the Secret Service said it had put more people and resources into protection than ever, implying there were indeed more threats to protect against.

Kessler’s reporting matches what other journalists wrote about the same period when Obama took office. In November 2008, the Associated Press reported:
Threats against a new president historically spike right after an election, but from Maine to Idaho law enforcement officials are seeing more against Barack Obama than ever before.

The Secret Service would not comment or provide the number of cases they are investigating. But since the Nov. 4 election, law enforcement officials have seen more potentially threatening writings, Internet postings and other activity directed at Obama than has been seen with any past president-elect, said officials aware of the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue of a president's security is so sensitive.
In the same month that Kessler’s book came out, the Congressional Research Service issued a report on the Secret Service, which the Boston Globe described in October 2009:
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.
Like Kessler’s book, that report also said that the agency was under strain because of its mission was expanding faster than its budget.

We should expect the agency to have a mixed reaction to such reports. On the one hand, its managers want Congress and the American people to recognize its importance and provide a budget that can cover all its responsibilities. On the other hand, they don’t want to appear inadequate or rash, they don’t want responsibilities taken away from them, and when testifying before Congress they’re obligated (like the managers of other federal departments) to support the executive branch’s budget requests.

Secret Service head Mark Sullivan went before a House committee on 3 Dec 2009, and Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) asked him particularly about the level of threats against the President. Sullivan’s response was quite interesting:
NORTON: Given death threats to this president, was there any attempt to increase the security at this event, yes or no?

SULLIVAN: Ma’am, I can’t talk about that. I would be more—number one, I will address the threats. I have heard a number out there that the threat is up by 400 percent. I’m not sure where that number...

NORTON: Is it up at all? We’re not asking for the threat number.

SULLIVAN: Well, I would—I think it can answer you, ma’am. It isn’t at 400 percent. And I’m not sure where that number came from, but I can... [CROSSTALK]

NORTON: Please don’t assign to me a number in my question. I just asked you if the threats were up. Are the threats up or not, Mr. Sullivan?

SULLIVAN: They are not. The threats right now in the inappropriate interest that we’re seeing is the same level as it has been for the previous two presidents at this point.
Sullivan was obviously eager to put the “400 percent” number into the record (while insisting he didn’t know its source) so that he could deny it was accurate. And Norton, who knows how this game is played, was eager to have Sullivan answer the basic question of whether President Obama had received more threats than his predecessors. Sullivan said no—but qualified his statement with the words “right now” and “at this point.”

Some media outlets interpreted Sullivan’s carefully chosen “It isn’t at 400 percent” to mean that Kessler’s figure had never been correct. But more questioning from journalists revealed that Sullivan’s answer downplayed the number of threats seen just a few months earlier. In December 2009 the New York Times reported:
[There was] a spike of threats against Mr. Obama before his inauguration and in the early months of his presidency, raising deep concerns inside the Secret Service and at the White House.

The threats have leveled off in recent months, officials said, and Mr. Obama now receives about the same as his two most recent predecessors. But several officials said they took no solace that the volume of reports had receded because it was the nature of the threats that concern them and because the factors behind the increase remain — Mr. Obama’s race prime among them.
So as I see the situation, Kessler confirmed the 400% figure as he completed his book during the transition into the new administration and its early months. Or, as I wrote, “when Barack Obama took office.” Kessler’s sources were anonymous but apparently solid: he claims to have spoken to people at two agencies. Other journalists reported before and since that there was an alarmingly high level of threats against Obama at that time. And the Secret Service has issued only the most carefully worded denials of the statistic without providing a different number.

I therefore suspect 400% is reasonably accurate, though only for that period; later months were average. Of course, arithmetically that means the average over the entire year was up. I may have been too bold in writing that “the Secret Service reported” the 400% number, however, because it never issued a formal statement to that effect.

More accurate would be: Secret Service personnel, when cooperating with an established Washington journalist on what they expected to be a favorable book that would reinforce their agency’s importance, anonymously confirmed a 400% increase in threats to the President in the period when Barack Obama took office. After the book proved to be more gossipy than they’d hoped, and not to provide a good picture of the agency’s discretion, Secret Service managers have worked to undercut that figure—without ever explicitly denying it.


Gail Gauthier said...

I read Salon regularly, but often don't scroll past the top headlines, so I missed this. But, now that I know to look, there you are, right on the first page. I think it's terrific to see you there.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks, Gail!