Authorities plan for threats to Republican, Democratic presidential conventions

The signature election events are less than six months away.

February 23, 2024, 6:09 AM

Months before they’re set to begin, law enforcement is already planning a massive effort to protect the presidential nominating conventions set for this summer, according to a new federal bulletin.

The Republican and Democratic gatherings – the signature gatherings of the 2024 presidential election – would make attractive targets for would-be attackers or anyone else interested in causing disruptions that might embarrass or endanger the events, or worse, in front of massive in-person and television audiences, analysts at the Department of Homeland Security have concluded.

The confidential DHS analysis, obtained by ABC News, lays out a menu of potential online and real-world attacks in an effort to help law enforcement agencies identify "potential threats" during the "build-up and execution" of the political conventions. With less than six months to go before the Republicans gather in Milwaukee and the Democrats meet in Chicago, law enforcement and security personnel are strategizing and planning, the document says.

PHOTO: The logo for the Democratic National Convention is displayed on the scoreboard at the United Center during a media walkthrough, Jan. 18, 2024, in Chicago.
The logo for the Democratic National Convention is displayed on the scoreboard at the United Center during a media walkthrough, Jan. 18, 2024, in Chicago.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

"Nation-state and non-state threat actors may view these events as an opportunity to influence or disrupt the U.S. political process using hostile or violent disruption tactics on a national media stage," according to the Feb.12 DHS bulletin.

Not only are the conventions "widely publicized," the analysis notes, the threat landscape spans far wider than the event sites: from potential cyber attacks, to information warfare, to "physical threats" and attempts at inciting violence.

The new assessment comes as the partisan environment seethes with hostility and division, multiple wars are being waged overseas, and law enforcement eyes the risk of political violence ahead of an election unlike any other in modern American history.

"Our current environment is a tinderbox - and you never know which match is going to land and light a fire. So, whether it’s a parade celebrating the Super Bowl – or a major political convention – we don’t know where the threat might come from, or who might do it, but we know it’s coming – so we’ve got to expect the unexpected and prepare for all of it," said Elizabeth Neumann, a DHS assistant secretary during the first years of Trump's presidency and now an ABC News contributor.

"The level of preparations for this election are unlike any I've seen in the past, and that’s because the threat level is unlike it’s ever been before – for a variety of reasons," said John Cohen, the former intelligence chief at the Department of Homeland Security and now an ABC News contributor. "We consider this a perfect storm from a threat perspective, because there’s multiple factors contributing to such volatility in the current threat environment."

In mid-July, the 2024 Republican National Convention will be gaveled into session in the battleground state of Wisconsin, which played a pivotal role in the 2020 loss of then-President Donald Trump. According to the polls, Trump will likely be his party’s nominee once again, and would be declared as such at the Milwaukee event.

A month later, the Democrats will convene on the shores of Lake Michigan in their party’s historic bastion of Chicago, the hometown of former President Barack Obama. It is a city that holds a critical if not always flattering position in the history of presidential elections. Notably, the 1968 Democratic convention in the Windy City deteriorated into violence outside the hall and a near-riot inside as a result of tensions over the Vietnam War and protests over the party’s nomination process.

The 2024 race has so far been marked by increasingly toxic rhetoric, and the intermingling of inflammatory campaign trail hyperbole and courtroom theatrics, as Trump faces four criminal trials in which he maintains his innocence. In addition, hate speech, misinformation and disinformation are running rampant on social media and in real life, and rapidly evolving technology remains vulnerable, experts say. Meanwhile, the conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine continue on.

"The country is polarized, people are angry, people view those who hold opposing views as the enemy, there is distrust in government institutions, and in particular, in the election process itself. And in some cases, we have seen this anger and distrust of government materializing into violence," Cohen said – with foreign adversaries seeking to "exploit" contentious wedge issues in America to achieve their own objectives.

"High-profile public figures and elected officials – that makes it an attractive target – and law enforcement has to deal with a broad range of cyber, physical and information operation-related threats," Cohen said.

These will be the first national conventions since the COVID-19 pandemic upended 2020’s plans for large in-person nominating events. It will also be the first since the Jan. 6, 2021 attacks at the U.S. Capitol, which grew out of a Trump rally dedicated to his bogus claims that the 2020 presidential election had been stolen.

Now, law enforcement is combating a more diffuse threat spectrum further enabled by the internet and advancement of artificial intelligence – and they’re gaming out how to thwart any would-be attack on this summer’s iconic political conventions.

The confidential bulletin warns to watch out for "potential cyber threats" surrounding the conventions, including "violent extremist, foreign terrorist organization, nation-state or state-sponsored actors, or cybercriminals attempts to disrupt or collect on the event," including through "social engineering" like phishing attempts. Cyber techniques could also be used to "disrupt" communications and command and control infrastructure, the analysis said.

"Physical threats" also loom over the conventions, the analysis warned. Bad actors could try to pass as authorized "security partners" – and possibly attempt to "purchase, steal or acquire" explosives meant to target convention sites.

"Attempts to attack U.S. interests," though perhaps nowhere near Milwaukee or Chicago, could also be planned "in conjunction" with convention events, the bulletin said.

Violent actors could plan to attack "critical infrastructure" associated with the convention venues – with potential targets including commercial or government facilities, political campaigns, emergency services, food and agriculture, energy, communications and transportation.

And there are other ways of exploiting the gatherings from outside the arena. Beware of "increased supply of narcotics or human trafficking activity to regions hosting" the conventions, the bulletin said.

The analysis also warns of the danger posed by information warfare of cyber actors sowing "disinformation," and foreign adversaries’ messaging and attempts to influence, sway or disrupt elections.

"We’re seeing a security community trying to be agile – for a threat that’s very agile," Neumann said.

Wisconsin’s House Delegation has asked the federal government for $75 million to cover security costs during each convention – a $25 million bump up from what host cities have typically received.

Security preparations have been long underway for what state and local law enforcement officials believe will be an "all hands-on deck" event with little precedent in recent Wisconsin history, the lawmakers wrote in a joint letter last March.

As many as 4,500 additional police officers from multiple agencies could be brought in to meet Milwaukee’s security demands during the week of the convention, Jeff Fleming, Milwaukee’s director of communications, told ABC.

In gaming out security plans for that week, Milwaukee's Democratic Mayor Cavalier Johnson has underscored the range of factors to consider, Fleming said. Input from the Secret Service, drawing insights from their shelved 2020 DNC hosting plans – and, critically, the political climate in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

"It’s not just Jan. 6, you know - we’re also coming out of the George Floyd-related protests, where urban police departments in general had a great deal of exposure to passionate demonstrations," Fleming said. "I think it has been a continuous learning process, for all law enforcement across the country, on best practices in managing demonstrations, and protecting people and property along the way."

The city plans to designate a protest space near the convention center and a parade route should demonstrators wish to march, Fleming said.

When Chicago law enforcement found out their city would host the DNC, they sprang into prep mode immediately, Chicago Police Department Superintendent Larry Snelling said during a recent speech.

"We started training right away," Snelling said. "We had about a year to prepare. That’s not a lot of time."

"It’s going to be a massive, high resource security effort – not only at the conventions themselves, but all around them," Cohen said. "What concerns law enforcement officials is, we’re very good at dealing with the threats of yesterday. We’re only learning now how to deal with the threats of today."