07/16/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

What Does an Extremist Look Like?

Is an extremist tall, short, young, old, thin, fat? Would you know if the person standing next to you was about to pull out a gun and shoot?

Scary thought, isn't it?

Think about the pressure our protective and security agencies have been under since President Obama took office?

Yet, with all this pressure, we -- and our agencies -- must be sure we are not creating a net that catches more people, but not more threats.

Protective agencies are charged with creating "assessments" -- descriptions -- of what constitutes a threat to our safety. These agencies include the Pentagon's National Security Agency, Department of Homeland Security which oversees the Secret Service, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Federal Air Marshals and The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC).

Recently there is new controversy regarding who is a threat. A threat was easier to define in 1975 when the profile of someone likely to take a shot at the president was defined by the Secret Service as someone "to be male, between the ages of 20 and 40, of slight build, born overseas, unemployed, a loner, and someone who suffered from delusions of grandeur or persecution."

When Sara Jane Moore took her shot at President Gerald Ford, the Secret Service was not looking for "...a female, in her mid-40s, of stocky build, born in the United States, employed full-time as an accountant, had been married and had a son, and had no history of delusions at the time she shot at Ford."

No one wants another "Sara Jane Moore" incident, of course. Yet, we still have a lot to learn. We must constantly analyze new and different approaches and profiles without the danger of lumping and clumping people into roles and ideologies.

The latest description of a right-wing extremist or white supremacist casts an even wider definition of a threat. Those affected by the economic downturn, disaffected military veterans, racist factions and feelings of governmental oppression.

Would Moore or Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme fit the definition of a white-wing extremist? How Sara Jane slipped through the scrutiny of Secret Service Agents is still being studied by agents today, 34 years later.

Consider that Moore's rationale fits into what we would call a right-wing extremist. She believed that the U.S. government was oppressive and, "She hoped to trigger the kind of chaos that could have started the upheaval of change."

She surrounded herself with like-minded thinkers whose fear of the federal government was real to them and they only way to change it was through violence.

In her statement before Judge Samuel Conti, she said a federal agent bragged about his abilities in the area of anonymous letter writing and other forms of character assassination. She said the federal agent told her the government needed to gain control over the citizenry. "You don't seem to realize that this is a war," he told her.

Then we have another example of 88-year-old white supremacist James von Brunn who strolled into the National Holocaust Museum and shot an African American security guard and anti-abortion extremist Scott Roeder went into a church slaughtered a family physician.

Which of these people fit neatly into the threat assessment? We are racing to quickly redefine just what a "threat" looks like.

Tools, creativity and a willingness to look beyond the obvious are necessary to protect our elected officials and us as well. Yet, our agencies can be thrown into a "them and us" scenario if they are not careful.

All the signs were there for the Secret Service, FBI and San Francisco Police to retain Sara Jane Moore, yet no one believed a white, 45 year-old mother could possibly pose a threat to anyone or try to assassinate a U.S. president? Even though this 40-something woman admitted to carrying a gun and called to say she wanted to check presidential security no one stopped her.

Does this mean we round up all mid-forties women in the crowd? Where do we go from here?

The Technology Gap

Technology has played a big role in protecting elected officials in terms of communicating with other agencies -- that is if they will talk to each other? Technology is only a tool, not the key, to the solution to identifying a threat while still protecting our right to privacy.

Technology also works to make the job harder as the tools can work against agencies in the same way: communicating locations, messages back and forth about preparing for an assassination attempt or other terrorist event.

If we are going to match the skill and speed of the computer wizards, we need to have the same toys and the same weapons necessary to play in the game.

Unfortunately, it appears our primary presidential protective agency, the Secret Service, is not up to speed. It does not have the sophisticated systems to track record and monitor what is riding on the Internet. So, it has asked for a $34 million to help upgrade its systems. Without it not only will the Secret Service not be able to keep up with the hackers and other threats, it will not be able to communicate with the White House!

Apparently the agency flunked an NSA security audit last year that was intended to detect intrusions and vulnerabilities. How can we fight back?

We are the government and we are here to Network

The Secret Service may be your friend on MySpace. We could be networking with the federal government? I wonder what the Secret Service profile looks like on a social network?

Supposedly a surveillance system on social networks can penetrate organizing groups forming "nodes" in the network and then remove them. Kind of like cutting out a cancer cell before it gets too big.

If there is suspicion that a "node" user poses a threat, the Secret Service will, "track information from phone call records such as those in the NSA call database. The information will be extracted such as personal interests, friendships and affiliations, wants, beliefs, thoughts, and activities."

Bingo, now you have the information needed to build an assessment?

Who poses a real threat and who doesn't? Will we ever recognize a Sara Jane Moore in the future?

A savvy white supremacist may avoid all technology and "go retro" by using snail mail and we miss by looking the other way.

When Bush was president, anyone disagreeing with the government was unpatriotic, yet now, agreeing with the government makes one a Socialist.

It is not going to be easy for the agencies within the DHS to sort it all out and find those who truly pose a threat and not just a loud mouth. It is going to take some very skilled and nuanced agents to design the process both ways.

Geri Spieler is the author of, Taking Aim At The President, published by Palgrave Macmillan January, 2009