An overwhelmed Secret Service

AN OVERWHELMED SECRET SERVICE…. There was a report in August that threats against the president have increased 400% since the Bush era. A couple of weeks ago, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele dismissed the reported surge, and questioned the validity of the claims.

Steele probably ought to take the matter more seriously. The threats against President Obama and other U.S. leaders are putting a strain on the Secret Service that’s overwhelming the agency.

The unprecedented number of death threats against President Obama, a rise in racist hate groups, and a new wave of antigovernment fervor threaten to overwhelm the US Secret Service, according to government officials and reports, raising new questions about the 144-year-old agency’s overall mission.

The Secret Service is tracking a far broader range of possible threats to the nation’s leaders, the officials said, even as it also investigates financial crimes such as counterfeiting as part of its original mandate.

The new demands are leading some officials, both inside and outside the agency, to raise the possibility of the service curtailing or dropping its role in fighting financial crime to focus more on protecting leaders and their families from assassination attempts and thwarting terrorist plots aimed at high-profile events.

Even as the size of the Secret Service’s staff and budget grow, the agency is struggling to keep up with demands on its time. On the one hand, the Secret Service is still in the business of investigating financial crimes, searching for missing and exploited children, and possibly even expanding its role in probing mortgage fraud. On the other, domestic threats against U.S. leaders, most notably the president, have escalated considerably.

Threatening language has also found its way into talk radio broadcasts and social networking websites, raising fears that individuals not normally considered threats to the president could be incited to violence.

For example, the Secret Service in recent months has investigated a poll posted on Facebook about whether Obama should be killed. It has interviewed a Florida radio talk show host after a caller mentioned ammunition, target practice, and the president, and federal officials have raised concerns about several instances in which protesters carrying weapons showed up at Obama events, including a man at an August town hall in New Hampshire.

“The racist extremist fringe is exploiting themes that strike a chord in the mainstream more than we have seen in the recent past,” said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University-San Bernardino, citing several elected leaders who have questioned whether Obama is a US citizen eligible to be president.

The next step is reevaluating whether the Secret Service can continue to take on everything on its plate. One official said, “This is a discussion going on not only in some quarters in Congress, but inside the Secret Service. Should there be a re-look at the mission?”