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When a Joke is No Laughing Matter to the Secret Service

The story popped up in my news feed sometime last week:  Secret Service shows up at Columbus man’s door after social media comment

It was the type of headline I had read too many times.  As a former Secret Service agent, and one who has worked a lot of threat cases, I recognized it as the type of investigation I had dealt with repeatedly.  In this particular instance, a man had read a social media post regarding a political event involving Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton and posted the comment, “Where do we send the bomb.”  Predictably, somebody notified the Secret Service and Special Agents paid him a visit.  Just as predictably, the man claimed the comment was meant to be a joke.

Against my better judgment, I weeded through the readers’ comments attached to the post regarding the incident.  Some of the comments on the Facebook link I pulled up were:

“He was joking.  This country needs to lighten up a little.”

“Wow… this is getting out of control. Our government would just love to control social media.”

“Quite the overreaction.  But then again, it is the PC world.”

And on and on and on…


Of course there are always comments addressing an individual’s rights regarding freedom of speech, but that is another topic altogether and too complex to address in this post.

I am going to try to explain why “joking” threats are no joke at all.  I say “try”, because I cannot and will not reveal exactly how the Secret Service investigates threat cases.  Not only did I sign a nondisclosure agreement a long time ago, but it would be irresponsible to reveal more than what can be found through online open source resources (publicly available).  So, I am going to make an attempt at explaining why threats that are meant to be facetious are dangerous and damaging.

Using the recent Columbus, Ohio incident as an example, the man who made the “joke” stated that the agents who appeared at his home already knew a great deal about him.  Of course until the Secret Service interviews someone who makes a threatening comment there is no way to know if the threat has the potential to be real.

The individual making the threat will have to be interviewed and it is always helpful to know the background of the person you are interviewing.  So one may conclude that these agents, who could be spending their time pursuing legitimate threat cases or working various criminal investigations, have already had to spend time preparing to interview the suspect by gathering background information to include any criminal history, previous threats made, affiliations with terrorist groups, etc.  After all, you would not want to be interviewing a suspect without knowing he has a history of reacting violently to law enforcement or is wanted for murder in three states.  Information can be helpful!  With the prep time, drive time, and interviewing time, and report writing time, we are already talking about HOURS spent on this “joke” which is now a Protective Intelligence case.

But, we are not done.

According to this guide for handling threat cases, threat cases involve:

  • Identification
  • Assessment
  • Classification

Simple right?

Not quite.

Just A Few Hours?

Although hours have already been spent on the person who has been identified as having made a threatening comment, this is just the beginning of a threat case.  Now, the individual will have to be assessed.  This could include more electronic checks, calls to other agencies, visits to psychiatrists, interviews with neighbors, family members, and coworkers, and much more.  Some of these checks may be out of the state, or even out of the country, and many will have to be conducted in person.  Suddenly, multiple agents in various locations are being dedicated to this “joke”.   Real funny.

But, we are not done.

A Few Weeks?

The results of all of these checks and interviews will have to be collected by an agency’s central Intelligence entity or Threat Assessment center.  At which point, MORE agents are going to have to pick through the findings, weigh all of the factors, determine the legitimacy of the threat, and classify the case in a manner that will determine what future level of scrutiny it may receive.  Yes.  I said FUTURE.

Because… we are not done.

Months?  Years?

If at any point it is determined that an individual who made a threat will be prosecuted, then an entire chain of events occurs involving the judicial system.  That chain of events will have to be tracked and monitored.

If at any point it is determined that an individual who made a threat needs to be committed for psychiatric evaluation, then an entire of events occurs involving the mental health system.  That chain of events will have to be tracked and monitored.

If it is determined that an individual COULD be a threat, a significant amount of follow-up and monitoring will be conducted.

Even if it is determined that an individual is likely NOT a threat, the follow-up work may be minimal, but look at what has been done already.

Every single threat needs to be investigated.  Every single one.  Aside from the possibility that every threat communicated makes a violent act seem more feasible to those with disturbed minds or evil intent, a simple social media comment intended to be interpreted as a joke can cause an investigative agency to dedicate an incredible amount of resources throughout the world.  This is why making a threat toward an individual protected by the Secret Service is ALWAYS a big deal.  It is not about having a sense of humor (I have one.  I swear!).  It is about respecting the fact that our protectors have enough rough waters to navigate without any more people making waves.

J.J. Hensley is the author of RESOLVE, which is set against the backdrop of the Pittsburgh Marathon, Measure Twice, Chalk’s Outline, and other works. Hensley is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service.

image1Cyprus Keller wants a future.
Jackson Channing has a past.
Robert Chalk has a rifle and a mission.  Kill Cyprus Keller and anyone who gets in his way.


An addict is killing Pittsburgh city officials, but Homicide Detective Jackson Channing has his own addiction.



In the Pittsburgh Marathon, more than 18,000 people will participate. 4,500 people will attempt to cover the full 26.2 miles. Over 200 of the participants will quit, realizing it just wasn’t their day. More than 100 will get injured and require medical treatment. One man is going to be murdered.  When Dr. Cyprus Keller lines up to start the race, he knows a man is going to die for one simple reason. He’s going to kill him.

resolve-cover art CL (1)

Finalist – 2014 International Thriller Writers Awards – Best First Novel
Named one of the BEST BOOKS of 2013 by Suspense Magazine!
Top Ten Books of the Year – Authors on the Air

 And look for my short story FOUR DAYS FOREVER in the LEGACY anthology