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Threatening the President

On Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2001, a 47-year old Evansville, Indiana man identified as Robert Pickett, while waving a loaded handgun near a White House gate and was shot in the knee by a Secret Service Agent. While Pickett's intent is still unknown, Secret Service Agents had to interpret his actions as a threat to President Bush and acted accordingly.

Secret Service Agents are allowed wide latitude when deciding whether or not a given act represents a threat against the President of the United States. Here's why.

A Threat From the Pulpit

(From the Washington Times, 12/27/96, page A5.)
"God will hold you to account, Mr. President."
"--Rev. Rob Shenck, to President Clinton during a Christmas Eve church service at the Washington National Cathedral, referring to the president's veto of a ban on partial-birth abortion. After the service, Rev. Shenck was detained by Secret Service agents who accused him of threatening the President's life. No charges were filed."

A Food Fair Remark

(Excerpt from an AP wire story dated October 30, 1996)
"CHICAGO (AP) --  ... (two people) were arrested July 2 at the Taste of Chicago fair after President Clinton approached them and ... responded with a rude remark.

She said the remark was, ' "You suck and those boys died,'' ' in reference to the June 25 attack of a U.S. installation in Saudi Arabia that left 19 American airmen dead. Secret Service agents initially said they heard something else that could have been taken as a threat against the president. Police said the (couple) were arrested for persisting to shout profanities while being questioned."

(All charges were later dropped.)

What Constitutes a "Threat?"

According to this law -- 18 USC Sec. 871 -- which reads, in part:

"...Whoever knowingly and willfully deposits for conveyance in the mail or for a delivery from any post office or by any letter carrier any letter, paper, writing, print, missive, or document containing any threat to take the life of, to kidnap, or to inflict bodily harm upon the President of the United States, the President-elect, the Vice President or other officer next in the order of succession to the office of President of the United States, or the Vice President-elect, or knowingly and willfully otherwise makes any such threat against the President, President-elect, Vice President or other officer next in the order of succession to the office of President, or Vice President-elect, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both."

That covers a lot of deeds and statements. It gives the Secret Service a lot of latitude when conducting an investigation. There is a very good reason for this. Few jobs are more dangerous than President of the United States.

Presidential Shooting Gallery?
Okay, maybe the Secret Service does stretch semantics in the two cases above, but can they afford not to? Consider this: While the murder rate among private Americans is 1 out of 13,530 people, 1 out of 10 US Presidents has been assassinated (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Kennedy) and a fifth (Reagan) was shot. Eleven others were uninjured in failed assassination attempts.

Remember Francisco Martin Duran? Back in 1994, he told some people he was going to kill President Clinton. Nobody took him seriously. But on October 29, 1994, in broad daylight and surrounded by tourists, Duran walked up to the White House fence and fired at least 29, 7.62 mm rifle rounds into Mr. Clinton's home.

Or how about Giuseppe Zangara who took a shot at President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 because, "I don't hate Mr. Roosevelt personally... I hate all officials and everybody who is rich."

Imagine living every day with the knowledge that somebody, somewhere, is making plans to kill you. It would be enough to make me apply pretty liberal definitions to the word "threat."

Every year, the Secret Service investigates over 1,500 reported or discovered threats against the President. While most people who threaten the President are just venting, even joking, all reported threats are taken very seriously and those who make them are in for, at least, a tough time.

As their name implies, the Secret Service does not seek publicity. As a result, some very scary cases of threats against the President can only be found in law books...

United States v. Barbour - US Court of Appeals -11th Ciruit
http://www.law.emory.edu/11circuit/dec95/94-2981.opa.html

"On January 11, 1994, suffering from severe depression, Barbour attempted suicide at his apartment in Florida. Before his attempt, he had written a suicide note. After the attempt failed, he put his gun and clothes in his car and drove toward West Virginia, where he again intended to commit suicide. Barbour missed his exit, however, and decided instead to drive to Washington, D.C. to assassinate President Clinton. That same night, Barbour checked into the Mt. Vee Motel in Alexandria, Virginia, where he stayed for seven nights."

"According to statements subsequently made by Barbour to Secret Service agents, Barbour went to the Mall in Washington each day of his trip, intending to shoot the President while the President was jogging. Barbour also told the agents that he walked around the White House several times and that he transported one hundred rounds of ammunition to Washington. It had been Barbour's intention to kill the President and to get himself killed in the process. While in Washington, however, Barbour discovered that the President was in Russia. On January 18, 1994, Barbour headed back to Florida, and a few days later he sold his gun."

Mr. Barbour was appealing his conviction contending that he had just been making "idle threats" and had no intent of harming the President. The Court of Appeals upheld the conviction stating in part, "...Barbour "was not just making idle threats." "...Less than two weeks prior to his threats, Barbour was in Washington, D.C., with one hundred rounds of ammunition, waiting to assassinate the President. He failed to carry out his plan only because the President never arrived where Barbour was waiting, and he returned home only after discovering the President was out of the country. Barbour never deviated from his plan to kill the President; he was just denied the opportunity."

Threat or Criticism
Where is the line drawn? When does a critical remark become a threat? On one extreme is the off-hand comment, the letter to a friend, the email to a co-worker, or message posted in a newsgroup. On the other, the twisted psychotic plot. Clearly, the circumstances of delivery make a great deal of difference. A "letter to the editor", or speech intelligently attacking the President's every action and policy is our right and should never be construed as a physical threat. Screaming obscenities in the President's face, sending threatening mail to the White House, or publicly stating a desire to see the President harmed are not only acts of shameful disrespect, they should always be considered threats under the law.


Related Breaking News:

White House Shooting - Feb. 7, 2001
An armed man was shot and arrested outside the White House gates Wednesday morning after he refused to surrender to Secret Service officers. Get the details of this breaking news story. From US News Guide Clare Saliba.

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