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DHS warns online threats targeting lawmakers on the rise

The Department of Homeland Security warned local law enforcement partners in a memo Wednesday of “new content online that could inspire violence, particularly by lone offenders,” against government officials, including members of Congress.

The threat update, issued by acting Under Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis John Cohen and obtained by CBS News, details two specific social media posts.

The first is a video posted on a QAnon-friendly forum “calling for Congresspeople to be hung in front of the White House.” The video — viewed 60,000 times in the run up to the one-year anniversary of the U.S. Capitol riot on Thursday — singles out 93 members of Congress with false claims they voted to certify the 2020 “fraudulent” presidential election.

The second online post allegedly claims January 6 is “a day to conduct assassinations against named Democratic political figures,” including President Joe Biden. 

According to Wednesday’s memo, there was no indication of a specific or credible plot surrounding the January 6 anniversary. On Monday, FBI’s Washington Field Office confirmed to CBS News that it “does not have any information indicating specific or credible threats.”

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However, senior law enforcement officials said they’ve observed an increase in online activity in the past 48 hours on a range of extremist platforms that goes beyond the pair of posts cited in Wednesday’s memo.

“There’s a shared concern amongst law enforcement officials across the country that we’re entering into a period of high volatility from a threat perspective,” a senior law enforcement official told CBS News, citing a polarized society and media climate saturated by disinformation as contributing factors. 

“And we’re in a period in this country where we continue to experience mass casualty attacks by disaffected angry individuals who are consuming content online,” the official added. 

On Wednesday, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas called the United States’ threat climate “grave,” noting that it has not diminished since last year’s deadly U.S. Capitol riot “but has certainly held steady if not grown in severity.”

While participating in a panel hosted by the Anti-Defamation League, Mayorkas acknowledged the department must “equip and empower local communities to identify ideologies of hate and false narratives” in order to prevent violence.

Furthermore, officials are concerned that increases in online chatter on public-facing platforms represent only the “tip of the iceberg,” citing an observed migration of bad actors both offline and onto encrypted apps. Those posts that are shared publicly are further amplified by foreign influence actors seeking to sow division among rank and file Americans, according to law enforcement officials. 

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Last Thursday, the FBI and DHS issued a joint intelligence bulletin cautioning that “state media or proxies associated with Chinese, Iranian, and Russian influence actors have amplified limited content regarding the Capitol breach or the upcoming anniversary, and continue to spread narratives about US election fraud.”

Cohen told reporters during a briefing on Tuesday that foreign adversaries have consistently worked “to understand those fracture points in our society and through their disinformation, campaign or influence operations, exploit those fractures by introducing them into the online ecosystem or amplifying them within the online ecosystem narratives that are specifically intended to exacerbate societal tensions.” 

“They’re hoping to sow discord. They’re hoping to undermine credibility in the government.”

On Tuesday, the DHS and FBI convened a conference call with the U.S. Capitol Police, U.S. Park Police, D.C. Metropolitan Police and the Supreme Court Police, plus state and local law enforcement agencies nationwide, to brief officials on emerging threats. 

Under the Biden administration, the DHS’ Office of Intelligence and Analysis now has a 24/7 intelligence watch capability, designed to screen threats around the clock.

“Since the violent events one year ago, DHS has enhanced its ability to detect, analyze, and respond to threats,” a DHS spokesperson said in a statement to CBS News. “The men and women of our Department remain vigilant in their national security mission, and we will continue to review the threat environment and share information with the public and our partners.”

Ahead of Wednesday’s memo, the Secret Service, the U.S. Capitol Police and the D.C. Metropolitan Police were informed of new intelligence surfacing online, prompting investigations “as appropriate,” according to the DHS. The Federal Protective Service — the federal law enforcement body housed under the DHS and charged with protecting more than 9,500 U.S. government facilities nationwide — has also expanded patrols this week, following reports of online activity targeting government officials beyond the U.S. Capitol region. 

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