Senate security will use Internet data mining to identify lawmaker threats

The Hill | April 13, 2011
By Debbie Siegelbaum

The Senate will conduct data mining of the Internet to identify potential threats against lawmakers, as well as offer Secret Service-led security training sessions for congressional staff.

The plans come in the wake of January’s shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).

“After the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords, [the] media did a very good job of saying, 'They found this, they found this, they found this,'” Senate Sergeant at Arms Terry Gainer said. “I and others have been saying, ‘Are we missing something that would be a pointer as to people who are in need of intervention?’”

He said his office will issue a contract by July to perform data mining of the Internet and social networking sites in an effort to identify and assess threats before they become an issue.

The data mining will be driven by keywords, including lawmakers’ names, and also by threatening terms such as "kill," "slash" and "shoot." Asked at what point comments would require further attention, Gainer said it would be depend on the situation.

“It is not illegal to say, ‘I wish he was dead.’ It’s not illegal to say, per se, ‘I wish someone would put a bullet through his head,’” he said. But “we do have ongoing threats against members, so I might say, ‘OK, if there’s a couple of threats against this member and the member’s going to go a particular area and have a large public forum on a controversial subject, maybe I’ll data mine that and see who’s saying what.'”

Flagged comments would then be assessed by forensic psychologists or experienced staff to determine if intervention is required.

“I can knock on the door and the person could say, ‘I don’t want to talk to you,’ or wherever it might lead in a normal police conversation. But I believe our obligation is to try to connect the dots … before something happens rather than after it happens,” Gainer said. “But the number of dots and the significance of them, that’s the complicated part we’re all trying to figure out.”

One potential hurdle is the sheer amount of data resulting from broad keyword searches and how to properly analyze that data to determine true threats.

“We’re all kind of frightened of this — how much unrelated garbage you’ll pick up and how to figure out what is important and what is not important — and then what to do with it,” Gainer added.

Another hurdle will be funding for the effort. Though Gainer declined to offer an estimate on the dollar value of the upcoming contract, he did say cost will be a driver in how often searches are run, which keywords are used and which members are screened.

“There’s going to be a cost to it, and it’s going to be limited,” he said. “I won’t be able to do it for every senator, I don’t think it will ever be done for every member of the House, but there are ways to prioritize.”

Gainer’s office is also working with Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan to increase security awareness across congressional staff and members’ offices.

“Mark suggested that the Secret Service would host, three or four times a year, training sessions for our staff members out at their academy,” Gainer said. “We have staff who are going to put the program together.”

The initiative will bridge the Senate Sergeant at Arms, Secret Service and Capitol Police and will provide “Security Planning for an Event 101,” he added. No time frame has yet been put in place for when the program will begin, but training sessions are expected to run from four to eight hours each.

“If we do it every other month, once a quarter, we can get a few hundred people through that and everybody will be better educated on this,” Gainer said.

The Senate’s efforts to better educate staff members on security follow a House Administration Committee initiative to assign a law enforcement coordinator in each member’s office following Giffords’s shooting.

House lawmakers were directed to contact local law enforcement about public events and to assign an office liaison to coordinate member activities with local police.

Gainer said his office did not pursue such a path.

“We have not felt the need for a members’ office to designate one person as the security officer,” he said. “I happen to think that that’s an all-hands evolution. Staffs in members offices turn over about 25 percent a year, so I don’t personally see an upside to doing that.”

Instead, the Senate Sergeant at Arms is relying on Senate staff to determine when they have a security issue.

“My expectation is the staff will only reach out when they think they have a problem,” Gainer said. “I think the chief of staff in the state office coordinator, from a Senate perspective, has a good handle on what’s going on in their jurisdiction and who’s in the best position to make a call that ‘I have a problem, or I need to reach out.’”