WASHINGTON — More than 60 percent of the threats against President Barack Obama are made online, according to the Secret Service, posing a new set of challenges for an agency under fire for a series of critical security lapses.
Lawmakers and private security officials question whether the Secret Service has sufficiently adapted to a new social-media landscape in which it must sort through a blizzard of online references to the president, investigate those that raise flags and then reconcile them with the intelligence they are gathering on the ground.
"I don't know if they've adapted to these new threats," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on national security. "The attacks are going to come, no matter what. Are there new and creative ways of detecting them? I'm not convinced they've tied those loops."
Chaffetz noted that he was "pleasantly surprised" that in 2011 agents were able to pick up right away a tweet a D.C. woman had posted about a man shooting at the White House. But he questioned why that piece of evidence was not used to corroborate suspicions among several officers that shots had been fired. Instead, the agency forwarded the report to the U.S. Park Police for further investigation, and it would be four days before it was discovered that bullets had hit the White House.
"Why didn't that show up in the system?" he asked about the tweet.
During Obama's first run for the presidency, the issue of clearest concern was his race, which made him a magnet for threats from people who thought being African-American disqualified him from the office.
After nearly six years in the White House, the number of overtly racist threats have subsided, but the threats in general continue. Today, the dominant theme of grievance in threats against the president is government overreach, according to current and former Secret Service officials, as critics suggest Obama is abusing his power and trampling the Constitution.
Brian Leary, a spokesman for the Secret Service, said the agency has adjusted to the fact that 60 percent of threats now made against the president occur online. "The capability is there, and we have to evolve with technology as well," he said, adding that the number of threats against Obama "did spike a few months after the election, but they declined back to a level that is consistent with his predecessors, and they still are."
Other sources, who because of the sensitivity of the matter asked to not be identified, said the president still receives more threats than previous presidents, although the number is lower than in the immediate aftermath of his first election.
Members of the protective intelligence division consider even the most minor suggestions of harm to the president worthy of investigation. One agent, who requested anonymity to discuss internal agency operations, described being instructed to interview individuals who were intoxicated in a bar and overheard describing how they would like to hurt the president.
Since Obama took office, at least 65 people have been indicted for threatening to harm him. In January, Daniel L. Temple, who had tweeted "im coming to kill you" and "so I gotta kill barack obama first," was sentenced to 16 months in prison after pleading guilty.
Nicholas Savino was sentenced in March to a year in jail after posting on the White House Web site in August 2013, "President Obama the Anti-Christ, As a result of breaking the constitution you will stand down or be shot dead."
Police, who arrested Savino a few days after he posted the statement, found three guns and roughly 11,000 rounds of ammunition in his apartment and car.
Agents briefed on protective intelligence for presidents and presidential candidates say that the rise in threats has much to do with the advance of the technological age, with the agency now receiving a much larger number of electronic communications that contain threats.
Today, racially based threats constitute between 5 and 10 percent of the threats made against the president, according to individuals familiar with the matter.
Marilyn Mayo, co-director of the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism, said her group has found that physical threats against Obama and racial remarks on white-supremacist sites peaked in 2008 and 2009.
During the early days of Obama's candidacy and his first year of his presidency, according to several individuals familiar with the matter, many of the threats against him had a frightening racist quality.
"If you had seen the stuff we were reading, it would have made your jaw drop," said one former agent, who asked not to be identified, because of the sensitive nature of the topic.
"We continue to see a tremendous amount of anger against Obama," she said, adding that much of it focuses on assertions that he has overstepped his constitutional authority.
Some critics do turn violent. Jerad Miller had called for Obama's impeachment on his Facebook page; in June he and his wife, Amanda, shot two police officers in a pizza restaurant in Las Vegas. They placed a swastika and an anti-government flag on one officer's body and a note on the other's, saying, "This is the start of the revolution." Miller died in a shootout with police, while his wife committed suicide.
Southern Poverty Law Center senior fellow Mark Potok, whose group monitors white-supremacist organizations, said in an interview, "The fact that all of this is online makes the job in some way easier and in some way harder."
"All this ugliness is exposed to the light of day," Potok said. "On the other hand, you typically have no idea who are the people posting on these sites, because they're anonymous."