Threats to ‘high-profile’ officials at their homes are on the rise: DHS

Written by on March 13, 2024

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(WASHINGTON) — Threats to high-profile officials are on the rise, and would-be attackers seeking to cause harm or fear are increasingly trying to hit them where they live — literally — according to a new federal intelligence bulletin.

A concerning “recent uptick” in personal residences targeted has left well-known people in both the public and private sector, their families and their staff “vulnerable to attack” in their own homes — and comes at a moment already marked by historic partisan tensions and volatility, analysts at the Department of Homeland Security said in a briefing memo issued on March 11.

The confidential memo, obtained by ABC News, details how threat actors, espousing a range of ideologies and promoting these attacks online, have moved beyond more traditional targets to those with less robust security measures — like home addresses. The pivot has posed “multiple challenges” for law enforcement working to detect and disrupt insidious plots.

“The threat to high-profile public and private sector officials and their families and staff has likely increased, judging from a recent uptick in online messaging promoting attacks at their homes, doxing and swatting incidents, and several notable attacks,” the bulletin warned. “Recent attacks at private residences have occurred during a period of overall increased political polarization, target hardening of more traditional attack locations, and the prevalence of conspiracy theories targeting industry and government officials.”

Private homes “lack” more “robust security measures” deployed where high-profile officials have typically been targeted “like government buildings and corporate offices,” the memo said — and with personal information exponentially available on the internet, the threat grows more complex, even as social media provides a platform for extremist thought.

And while “traditional targets” have hardened troubleshooting security measures, the memo said, that “probably drives potential attackers to prioritize private residences,” perceived as “accessible with limited obstacles.”

“We are now faced with a threat dynamic like never before,” said Donald Mihalek, a retired senior Secret Service agent and regional field training instructor who served during two presidential transitions, now an ABC News contributor. “In the past, we had to worry about a physical attack, an environmental attack, a nuclear attack – now, we’ve also got to worry about these multiple prongs via cyberspace.”

How readily accessible personal information has become gives potential threat actors more power – allowing them to “drive the response of an entire national security” or “public safety apparatus,” Mihalek said.

“It puts us at a tactical disadvantage, responding to these threats,” he said. “By our rules and our rights — subpoenas, search warrants, court orders, take time. But now – you have crime occurring at the click of a mouse.”

DHS analysts noted that their review found a distinct, recent rise in this tactic targeting high-profile people’s personal homes.

“While targeting private residences is not a new tactic, 7 of 10 known attacks or disrupted plots against high-profile officials since 2018 occurred in the last two years,” the memo said — attacks which “have resulted in at least three deaths and at least two serious injuries not only to the intended target, but to family members and employees of the targets.”

In Oct. 2022, the husband of then-House Speaker Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi was attacked by a hammer-wielding invader at their California home, who repeatedly asked, “Where’s Nancy?”

“The perpetrator was able to strike the victim with a hammer before police could subdue him,” the DHS memo noted.

“Increasingly, people have come to view those who disagree with their political and other views as the enemy – and that, at least in part, has contributed to the increased threats of violence against high-profile officials,” said John Cohen, the former intelligence chief at the Department of Homeland Security, now an ABC News contributor. “These tactics are not benign. They’re very dangerous.”

Election officials like Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, as well as the head of the federal government’s election security agency, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Director Jen Easterly, have already been victims of swatting incidents, as have some officials overseeing and involved in Trump’s cases.

In June 2022, a man allegedly drove from California to Maryland, intending to kill a Supreme Court justice, the bulletin noted. He arrived at the residence of a current justice in the early morning hours and was allegedly observed loitering outside, and had a firearm and multiple rounds of ammunition. He was indicted on federal charges and is currently awaiting trial.

In Jan. 2024, a “self‑identified anarchist group” allegedly set fire to a parked car outside a city commissioner’s home in Portland, Oregon — meant as a “call to action” and “warning” to other politicians, the DHS memo said. The car belonged to a family member of the commissioner.

Law enforcement is now forced to contend with a more diffuse and creative threat spectrum, fueled by an array of grievances and extremist beliefs, and further enabled by the internet, experts say — amid a high-stakes presidential election in a bitterly-divided nation.

In attacks reviewed by DHS analysts since 2018, “actors motivated by both ideological and personal grievances target private residences, creating a diverse set of potential motivating factors that challenge law enforcement’s ability to detect and disrupt plotting,” the DHS memo said.

The “prevalence” of personally identifiable information online and the “use of mapping software” allows threat actors skip in-person stalking or location casing, and instead “conduct preoperational surveillance and planning in a virtual environment” — “minimizing” law enforcement’s opportunities to stop these attacks, the memo said.

“I think what we’re witnessing is the increasing use of technology as a weapon,” Mihalek said. “Tools that make it so easy to find where someone lives, what their house looks like… creating an environment where individuals’ safety and security is in constant jeopardy because of this prolific use of so-called public information. And that provides a method of attack that never existed before.”

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