Threats against House members

Damage caused by vandalism at the office of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).
Damage caused by vandalism at the office of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.). (Courtesy of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords)
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Terrance Gainer
Senate Sergeant-at-Arms
Thursday, March 25, 2010; 2:45 PM

The pitched battle over health care has unleashed a rash of vandalism and attacks directed at politicians, with at least 10 House Democrats reporting death threats or incidents of harassment or vandalism at their district offices over the past week.

Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer was online Thursday, March 25, at 2:45 p.m. ET to discuss his response to the violence.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Gainer:

Thanks for taking questions today. While there have been new threats against lawmakers, have Capitol Hill law enforcement officers reported an uptick in actual incidents of violence on the Hill?

Terrance Gainer: There has been an increase in telephone calls and emails that are probably more harassing than threatening and the number of House Members being threatened has increased this week.


Raleigh, N.C.: Sergeant Gainer,

Would any of these recent acts perpetrated at other congressional offices be classified as domestic terrorism if committed at the Capitol?

If not, how would you classify such acts?

Thank you for protecting our most important democratic institutions, and our lawmakers, even those I disagree with. Keep up the good work.

Terrance Gainer: We look at harassment, threats whether by telephone or by email as criminal acts.


Laurel, Mad.: Have these been more common in the past than the public has been let known about?

Terrance Gainer: Unfortunately there is a steady stream of annoying harassing threatening telephone calls and letters and emails on a weekly basis. The United States Capitol Police works with Federal authorities such as the Secret Service, FBI, and local police to investigate matters that appear criminal in nature.


Stone Harbor, N.J.: Last week when Stupak was still a "no" vote he said his life was a "living hell," that he had to unplug his phones as he was receiving obscene and threatening calls and that his staff was being accosted wherever they went in an effort to intimidate him to change his vote. Is there an investigation into those threats also being done?

Terrance Gainer: Yes there are ongoing criminal investigations into threats made against members, their family, and staff.


New York: Has anything like this happened before? What do you feel is causing this problem? What can the leadership do about it?

Terrance Gainer: When important and critical legislation is being debated it is not unusual unfortunately that some small few use it as an excuse to vent their frustrations in angry hateful or in a criminal manor. I do not think it is representative of concerned Americans on either side of issues.


Question and Comment: I am a Dem and am happy about the health-care bill. That said, I am furious with Dems who claim GOP members of Congress are responsible for the violence because they inflamed the crowds. Regardless of their behavior, I can't imagine any Republican imagined or wanted this to happen. The violence is frightening and that ANYONE would use it to gain political advantage is sickening. That said, CAN Republican leaders quell the violence? Will the offenders listen to elected leaders, even conservative leaders? And is there any chance leaders of the Tea Party movement will publicly speak against those committing violent acts? Thanks for taking my question.

Terrance Gainer: I believe the Senators individually and collectively regardless of party abhor violence, intimidation, and incendiary language.


New York, N.Y.: A militia blogger has called for people to throw bricks through windows of political offices. How worried are you that threats are being taken seriously and not not an expression of just outrage?

Terrance Gainer: We take all threats seriously and will vigorously investigate and where appropriate seek criminal prosecution. Clearly we can disagree while not being disagreeable.


Washington, D.C.: Do you believe the threats stem from people with differing political views and related to the health care vote rather than random disenchantment with government?

Terrance Gainer: I think threats are born out of a combination of ignorance, anger, and hatred which far exceed reasonable people having valid different perspectives.


Woodbridge, Va.: Unfortunately, violence on the Hill has a long history including the bomb that went off outside the Republican Senate in 1983(85?) and the attack on Tom DeLay's office that left two CHP officers dead. Much of this was stirred up by the debate of whatever issues were current at the time (Democrat invective over the Welfare Reform bill during the 90s was orders of magnitude more inciteful than current Republican rhetoric). So how and why is the current situation any different?

Terrance Gainer: There is no good reason to use violence to express yourself.


Charlottesville, Va.: Sergeant Gainer,

Thank you for your service.

Can you estimate what percent of threats against lawmakers are directed at Republican lawmakers?

Thank you.

Terrance Gainer: I do not track threats by party or ideology. A threat against any member is un-American and illegal.


Philadelphia, Pa.: How much of an uptick in threats to the Capitol has occurred? Are we talking closer to a 1 percent increase, 10 percent increase, 100 percent increase, or more?

Terrance Gainer: The increase has been numerically minor but very heated.


Springfiled, Va.: Over the past three years, how many people have been prosecuted for making threats to members of Congress or to political party offices?

Terrance Gainer: I do not have the numbers in front of me but I know there have been prosecutions in the DC area and in several different states. We are sometimes successful in talking to the individuals who have made the threats and reaching an amicable resolution of the matter. Arrest is not always the answer.


New York, N.Y.: As a hypothetical, what would be the protocol for handling security if a member of Congress calls for violence against the office of another member and does so while speaking on the House floor?

Terrance Gainer: There is always a risk answering a hypothetical such as this without a bit more detail but suffice it to say a criminal act is a criminal act.


Fairfax, Va.: I'm reading that House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) is lashing out at Democrats for their handling of the threats, accusing them of "fanning the flames" by blaming the GOP. Would you comment on this please?

Terrance Gainer: In this day and age, all of us have a responsibility to try to calm situations. It strikes me as I have witnessed in the Senate all of us aught to reject violence and work towards a peaceful settlement of differences. I do not believe any members of Congress condone inflammatory rhetoric.


Washington, D.C.: Does your office keep in touch with FBI investigations into these threats?

Terrance Gainer: Yes, we and the US capitol Police work in tandem with the FBI, Secret Service, Metropolitan Police, and local authorities throughout the United States.


D.C.: Are you at all involved in the investigation about the cut gas line belonging to the Virginia congressman's brother, since there seems to be a link between it and the threats against members of Congress?

Terrance Gainer: The Unites States Capitol Police in conjunction with federal and local authorities are activity involved in a number of open cases.


Re: Health Care Vigilantes: I asked Paul Kane this earlier, but he didn't get around to it: What is WRONG with these people? And that's not a completely rhetorical question, even after reading the interview with the former militiaman who used his Web site to call on people to break the windows of Congressional Democratic offices.

Terrance Gainer: Making sweeping generalizations is usually dangerous and that is not my intention. However, too often when people are angry, ignorant and hateful they ought to stay away from alcohol, the telephone or the internet. Health debate and disagreements bring better understanding of each other and perspectives; that is a good thing.

Criminal activity is NOT the way to advance a cause.


Fairfax, Va.: Do you have more personnel on duty now because of what's going on now? Does each targeted congressperson have an assigned police protection?

Terrance Gainer: We are rather constant in our vigilance. We do work with other agencies to monitor criminal type activity and threats. The good news is, there is but a small minority who resort to behavior which is not tolerated in polite society.


If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck...: It seems to me that the reported incidents qualify as terrorism. I haven't yet seen it referred to in this way, and that's understandable, being fraught with complication as the term is. Can you give an adjective to help clarify? Is this "Tea Party" Terrorism? "Right-Wing" Terrorism? or just plain-old "Domestic" Terrorism. Maybe "Sour Grapes" terrorism? Or is it something else? I suppose the perpetrators see it as "Patriotic" terrorism?

Terrance Gainer: Terrorism for any reason is wrong.


Alexandria, Va.: With everything that has been happening in terms of racism, threats of violence towards congress members, derogatory epithets, vandalism and violence, my question is basically what is being done about those who are provoking such violence, such as fringe groups, who are planning an ARMED rally at Fort Hunt Park, AND at Gravelly Point, the park at the north end of the runway at National Airport? There are some very disturbing things on their Web site. Further, why/how can we allow a group carrying any kind of FIREARMS this close to the nation's capital's airport? Please investigate and address. I am VERY concerned about this type of gathering, especially this close to where I live and right next to our major airport.

Thank you.

Terrance Gainer: People have ever right to lawfully assemble. I hope they do so within the bounds of local law. Most do.


Dunn Loring, Va.: How does the number of threats compare to the threats made against members who supported the war against Iraq and Afghanistan? Did you or your office appear in any Web chats over those threats?

Also, what measures have you taken to ensure these threats aren't "inside jobs"(like the vandalism against the Colorado Democratic headquarters in August 2009)?

Terrance Gainer: I have not compared the the different events and the threats which resulted. That will be done at some point as we evaluate prevention and reaction strategies.


Boston, Mass.: Is this an unprecedented level of threats, or is this just being blown out of proportion by the Democrats?

Terrance Gainer: Some few have not exercised there rights appropriately. I don't dwell on reasons they think are justifications. We do not concentrate on the politics of individuals, just their behavior.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Have John Boehner or Eric Cantor issued any written guidance to Republican representatives to stop attending and fanning the flames at Tea Party events such as they did in front of the Capitol last week? Eric Cantor accuses Democrats of 'fanning flames' on member threats (44, March 25)

Terrance Gainer: I think I have touched on this earlier. Members in my experience want reasonable debate.


Vandalism is a weak word: Call it what it is ... terrorism and terrorist acts. We have people who are cutting U.S. citizens' gas lines to their homes. What the heck is happening to us that we threaten and intimidate elected leaders?

Terrance Gainer: Again the very good news is that the majority of individuals and groups involved in this health debate have been honest and heartfelt in their approach. After all these years in law enforcement I continue to impressed by people who care about others and sometimes disappointed in those whose hearts appear to be stone.


Philadelphia, Pa.: It is tragic that people have attacked congressional district offices. As Senate Sergeant-at-Arms, has there been any increase in the number of threats made upon the Capitol and Capitol offices since the new health-care bill has become law?

Terrance Gainer: We are not overly concerned but in the law enforcement business one grows accustomed to hate and hurt. The families of Members, the young staff have usually not experienced some of the things said and done recently. I see the Members and their staff tackling tough issues, involved in noble work and there is no reason to l attack them.

Most people are above that.


Falls Church, Va.: Thanks for your even handed answers and continued service. Do you ever miss the MPD? We miss you

Terrance Gainer: The Metropolitan Police is an outstanding organization. I am very proud to have served there. I have a son on that Department ( I hope this isn't him) and could not be happier with his chosen profession. I pray all those centurions will be safe.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: How do threats nowadays compare in numbers and extremeness to those against representatives and senators who supported the big Civil Rights bills back in 1964 and 1965?

Terrance Gainer: History tells us, and those who experienced the turmoil of the 60's remind us of the difficulties of those times. Blessedly America and Americans have dramatically changed there perspective of each other.

it is actually hard to believe what was done in the name of hate back then.

But the struggle to understand each other, work and live together continues. We all have a stake in success.


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