Twitter users sent more than 6.5 million Tweets during the third presidential debate Monday – and a few of them were death threats against President Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Less than 24 hours later, the Secret Service took to Twitter in what the department calls a new tactic to gather information on potential threats against the people they protect.
“To report a tweet that concerns you,” @SecretService wrote Tuesday in its first such Tweet, “call the nearest field office in your state.” The agency posted a similar message Wednesday morning.
The Secret Service wants to be aware of what messages are being disseminated on Twitter as the social networking website grows, said Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan. The Secret Service has been on Twitter for more than a year and has no other social media accounts.
“We’re not an intelligence agency – we’re consumers of information,” Donovan said. “We cast a wide net for information, and that includes law enforcement agencies, federal agencies and the general public.”
The Secret Service protects the president, the vice president and their families, among others. In the 120 days before an election, they also protect presidential candidates and their spouses.
Some Twitter users have alerted the agency by retweeting possibly threatening messages, and CC'ing @SecretService. But the best way to refer Tweets to the agency is by calling a field office, Donovan said.
“We want to make sure the local office is alerted as quickly as possible,” Donovan said. “We don’t want to rely on social media for reporting of potential issues.”
Joe Beaty, special agent in charge at the Los Angeles field office, said Wednesday the office hadn’t received any reports yet.
Tweet in hand, Secret Service agents decide whether the message is a potential threat. If they think it has dangerous implications, they may seek to prosecute the tweeter.
Agents often interview people who have sent such messages. Although Twitter handles don’t disclose locations, the agency has “the means at [its] disposal” to locate Twitter users, Donovan said -- often, by sending a court-approved subpoena to an Internet service provider.
Last month, a 25-year-old Birmingham, Ala., man was arrested and charged with making threats against the president after an anonymous caller reported a Tweet that said, “Free speech? Really? Let’s test this! Let’s kill the president!” according to court documents.
The Secret Service saw other Tweets on Jarvis Britton’s account that referred to cyanide poisoning and interviewed Britton, advising him of “the seriousness of the matter.” When Britton sent another Tweet in September that read, “Let’s kill the president. F.E.A.R.” he was arrested, the affidavit said.
Britton pleaded not guilty Oct. 16. Making threats against the president is a felony, punishable with a fine and up to five years in prison.