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Surge in false ‘swatting’ calls adds to lawmaker security concerns

House sergeant-at-arms recommends members contact local law enforcement about hoax emergency calls

Rep. Eric Burlison, R-Mo, was a victim of a hoax "swatting" call over the weekend.
Rep. Eric Burlison, R-Mo, was a victim of a hoax "swatting" call over the weekend. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Christian County deputies who approached Rep. Eric Burlison’s home in southwest Missouri this weekend needed only one question to determine that the Republican was the latest member of Congress to become a victim of “swatting.”

“Is there anyone named Jamal being held here under gunpoint,” a deputy asked, according to Burlison’s recollection. The Republican said he answered “no.”

“You’ve been swatted. You’re the congressman, right?” he said the deputy told him. “We pretty much knew it was ridiculous when we got it.”

Capitol Police officials say the recent surge in so-called swatting incidents — when someone makes a fake report about an alarming situation with the goal of prompting a SWAT team or other significant law enforcement response to a location — poses “a new challenge” in their mission to protect lawmakers.

At least 34 members of Congress since Christmas have been the target of swatting incidents, according to Capitol Police statistics. The agency said it is working to track down those who made the calls, but there are limited options to stem the false reports, which can set up a potentially dangerous or deadly situation.

In response, the House sergeant-at-arms has recommended that members reach out to their local law enforcement to share their home and district office locations and provide an emergency contact number that officers can use to validate emergency calls, according to guidance that House Administration Chairman Bryan Steil, R-Wis., sent to lawmakers earlier this month.

Burlison said he reached out to his local authorities after Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., announced that she had been swatted in December. Over the holidays, Rep. Brandon Williams, R-N.Y., and Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., also publicly announced that they were swatted.

In Burlison’s incident, the officer told him the Ozark County Sheriff’s Office had forwarded a concerning message from an anonymous person to the Christian County Sheriff’s Office, since Burlison lives in the city of Ozark, which is in Christian County.

“My guess is it’s someone that’s not from Missouri, because they probably would have known that the city of Ozark is not in Ozark County,” Burlison said.

Two officers in separate cars ultimately responded at Burlison’s house, a far more tempered response than the SWAT team.

Though such advanced coordination can help put police on notice of potentially bogus calls, Burlison said, there is always a chance that the call is real, and that poses a real challenge.

“But the irony is, you don’t want them to not come, because then what if there is a boy-who-cried-wolf situation where there is an actual violent attack, and they don’t feel the need to respond quickly and with aggressive force because they’re used to having these swatting events?” Burlison said.

Guns drawn

Greene said in an interview that the first time she experienced swatting, in the summer of 2022, police came to her home with guns drawn. She said she has been swatted eight times at her home and that her family has been swatted three times, for a total of 11 incidents.

“They dial in digitally. They come in through the internet, or through a VPN, and every single time, it’s like a suicide, they’re threatening to murder people, they’re threatening to kill themselves,” Greene said of the callers. “And then they are saying that they’re going to shoot police when they show up.”

Now, the local police in Georgia call her and check first, but they still respond, just in a less heightened state. “My police are amazing,” Greene said. “They handle it incredibly well.”

Greene said she’s talked to Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., and Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., because the issue is so “widespread.”

“What’s the roadblock that law enforcement can’t find these people? Like, how is it that I’ve been swatted eight times and they aren’t able to find this person?” Greene said.

Capitol Police’s Investigations Division works with local and federal law enforcement partners, including the FBI, to investigate the incidents. But law enforcement officials say it is extremely hard to track down the culprits.

In August 2023, a false call of an active shooter put Capitol Hill on lockdown and resulted in the evacuation of three Senate office buildings. That call came from overseas and used artificial intelligence to make it sound like there were people screaming and glass shattering in the background, according to Capitol Police.

There are federal laws that make bomb threats, threats to injure and certain hoaxes — like a false call of an active shooter — subject to criminal prosecution, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The guidance from Steil cautions lawmakers to follow directions and help de-escalate the situation even if police show up for a hoax call.

After local authorities have in their system that a certain address is that of a member of Congress, they can have an extra layer of caution when responding to such calls, rather than coming in with “guns blazing,” a Capitol Police official said.

Steil told lawmakers that bad actors can get lawmakers’ information online and through other public sources, and to mitigate that, the sergeant-at-arms — in conjunction with the House Administration panel and the chief administrative officer — put together a program for lawmakers and their families that gives them funding to bolster their home cybersecurity capabilities.

This includes privacy protection programs that help scrub personal information, such as home addresses, from the internet. The funds are drawn from the $10,000 given to members for residential security systems, which includes cybersecurity protection at home.

Lawmakers also can arrange an individualized assessment of security vulnerabilities through the House sergeant-at-arms.

Widespread reports

Swatters have struck a wider swath of the political arena than just Capitol Hill, and hit more members of Congress over the weekend.

John L. “Jack” Smith, the special counsel spearheading two prosecutions of former President Donald Trump, and Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is overseeing the case regarding Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, were both targeted by swatting efforts, NBC News and The New York Times reported. The newspaper also reported that the judge overseeing Trump’s civil fraud trial in New York, Arthur Engoron, was swatted with a fake bomb threat.

Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, was swatted in December, when police responded to a fake emergency call at her South Carolina home from a man who claimed to have shot a woman and threatened to hurt himself at the house, Reuters reported.

House Majority Whip Tom Emmer, R-Minn., announced that his home had been the target of swatters this weekend. He thanked the Wright County Sheriff’s Office for responding to the “911 prank call that wrongly diverted a police presence to my home.”

Nobody was home at the time, and no one was injured, he said. He condemned the “illegal and dangerous scheme” that targets elected officials across the country. Emmer, as a member of leadership, is protected by Capitol Police agents.

On Monday, Rep. Shontel Brown, D-Ohio, announced that she had been swatted. She thanked the Warrensville Heights Police Department for their response and said she had notified the Capitol Police.

“It is truly alarming that someone would attempt to harass or intimidate me in this way, while also forcing law enforcement to devote resources unnecessarily,” Brown said in a news release.

“No one deserves this, and it puts so many people at real risk, including family members, neighbors, law enforcement, and others,” Brown said. “We have got to get back to debating respectfully, respecting elections, and removing all violence and intimidation from our democracy.”

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