Online threats to State of the Union dwarfed by Chinese balloon jokes

While a Feb. 3 federal assessment warned of possible threats to the speech from "domestic violent extremists," online chatter has been limited.

Metal security fencing and a sign stating
Metal security fencing surrounds the grounds of the Capitol ahead of the State of the Union address. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
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In the days leading up to President Biden's State of the Union address on Tuesday evening, the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, Secret Service and Capitol Police released a national security assessment warning that the speech could be a target for “anti-government or anti-authority violent extremists.”

A Feb. 3 assessment, which was obtained by Yahoo News, highlighted the possible threats to the speech posed by extremist groups.

“We assess that domestic violent extremists (DVEs) could pose a threat to the SOTUA, particularly anti-government or anti-authority violent extremists — such as militia violent extremists or anarchist violent extremists — targeting the events or their perceived ideological opponents, and racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists,” reads the Joint Threat Assessment for Tuesday night's event.

The assessment mentions the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and the continued calls for attacks targeting lawmakers and law enforcement. One particular post being shared among extremists calls for Biden to be hanged or arrested for treason during his speech.

But a senior law enforcement official told Yahoo News that the number of threats against lawmakers and the president has been smaller than anticipated.

“We’re just not seeing much at all, really. There’s no there there,” the official said. “This is a good thing, of course, and it could also change, but we were concerned we’d see the kind of chatter we have seen in the past.”

The Secret Service and Capitol Police did not respond to Yahoo News’ requests for comment.

Federal law enforcement officials classify the State of the Union as a National Special Security Event, a designation that brings resources and multiagency coordination and requires the production of a Joint Threat Assessment to assist in security and operational planning and preparedness.

Some Democrats have feared that the current political climate in the House, along with the end of the use of metal detectors for lawmakers and officials who enter the chamber, have helped make the State of the Union more of a potential security risk.

“In the wake of the violent insurrection of January 6, an attempt by a Member of Congress to bring a concealed weapon on to the House Floor, other Members vowing to do so in contravention of House rules, and most recently a colleague distributing what appeared to be legitimate, and later revealed to be inert hand grenades on the House Floor, we know from experience that the House is vulnerable to multiple fronts of attacks both from inside and outside Congress,” Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., said in a letter to House and Senate leadership cosigned by 13 Democratic House colleagues.

Three workers install security fencing around the U.S. Capitol.
Workers install security fencing around the U.S. Capitol. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The Feb. 3 federal assessment seemed to echo those fears.

“Ideologically motivated violence in Washington, DC from 2020 through 2022 underscored the symbolic nature of the national capital region (NCR) and DVEs’ willingness to travel to events to violently engage law enforcement and their perceived adversaries using a variety of tactics and methods, including improvised explosive or incendiary devices (IEDs/IIDs) and firearms,” the assessment stated.

Ahead of the speech, however, experts who track online extremist activity said they have not seen signs of an increased threat level.

“I haven’t been seeing a lot of threats,” said Katherine Keneally, senior research manager at the Institute of Strategic Dialogic. “I am seeing a lot of jokes, Chinese spy balloon jokes.”

These include posts calling for Republicans to show up with balloons and jokes about whether Biden will address the balloon during his speech, she said.

“A lot of other stuff is just regurgitation of election denialism, COVID,” she said. “You know, those sorts of narratives are popping up again, but yeah, the Chinese balloon is definitely the newest.”

Donell Harvin, who oversaw the Fusion Intelligence Center for the District of Columbia on Jan. 6, 2021, and was involved in security for previous State of the Union addresses, told Yahoo News that fears of an incident during Tuesday’s speech are overblown.

“The Capitol is pretty secured. It's an NSSE, which means they have all the coordinations put in place for it and all the resources needed. And that includes OSINT [open source intelligence], which is scrubbing the online environment both to the kind of surface web that everyone's familiar with, but also the deep and dark web, which most people are not familiar with, to search for threats,” Harvin said.

On the calls to hang or arrest the president noted in the threat assessment, Harvin added, “I would say it’s a nothingburger.”