One came from a high school student who was goofing off on the school computer during civics lessons. Another from a man angry over an automated call. And another from a man who claimed he grew up with President Barack Obama in Wisconsin.
Threats against Members of Congress are up again this year, surpassing the pace set during the much-hyped debate over health care, but when you get behind the numbers, experts say it’s not clear that the danger is any higher.
The Capitol Police recorded 53 communicated threats from Oct. 1 to March 31, said Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer, who is also chairman of the Capitol Police Board. That’s more than the 47 threats recorded from October 2009 to March 2010, when the contentious health care debate raged on Capitol Hill.
Also on the rise are reports of what Capitol Police call “directions of interest,” or correspondence that may be disconcerting to a Member but is not quite a threat on its face.
“‘I wish you weren’t around anymore.’ ‘I hate you.’ ‘If you drop dead tomorrow I’d enjoy it,’” Gainer said. “That’s not a crime. But it might be a sliver of a dot we’d want to connect.”
Members reported 1,211 of these messages from October to March, compared with 1,025 over the same time period a year earlier.
Despite news reports to the contrary, however, these numbers do not show that threats are at an all-time high.
One issue is that the number of reported threats is just that — threats that were reported.
After the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) in January, several Members said they had not reported every threat or direction of interest they received in the past.
Gainer said Congressional law enforcement officials have struggled with persuading staff to report suspicious communication.
“There was a history of the staff kind of saying, ‘Oh, that’s Joe. He always does that,’” he said.
Gainer did not release a breakdown of recorded threats by month, so it is not possible to tell whether more threats and directions of interest were reported after the shooting than before. But Gainer said he believes Members may be more sensitive to directions of interest post-shooting.
That doesn’t surprise Howard Snyder, a Bureau of Justice Statistics official.
“When people’s sensitivity goes up, things get reported more often,” he said. But he added that more reported crime does not always mean more crime in general. “Reporting of crime and the incidence of crime may not be related in their trends.”
In addition, the Capitol Police have kept collated records for only the past year or two, so there are no data to prove threats are at a record high.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, speaks with reporters in the Capitol after a speech on the Senate floor that accused the CIA of searching computers set up for Congressional staff for their research of interrogation programs.