FBI Details Surge In Death Threats Against Lawmakers
I voted for you,” the caller said in a voice mail to Democratic Rep. Heath Shuler’s district office. “If you vote for that stimulus package, I’m gonna kill you. Simple as that.”
The FBI says the caller was a 70-year-old resident of Shuler’s North Carolina district with a history of mental illness and a cache of guns. In the weeks before calling Shuler’s office, the FBI says, the caller beat and choked his wife. She told the FBI that she’d tried to clear her home of guns — and that she went to bed at night with a can of mace tucked under her pillow.
When agents showed up at the man’s door, they asked him why he’d threatened to kill Shuler.
“I was trying to work the political scene,” he said.
The threat against Shuler is one of several detailed in 2009 FBI documents provided to POLITICO pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) were threatened with assassination. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D-Texas) were threatened with bodily harm. Someone told Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) that her throat would be cut. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) was told someone would physically “f—- her up” if she held a town hall meeting in her district, according to the FBI files.
There may have been more threats — the FBI won’t release information on investigations that are still open — and there will likely be more this year; Senate Sergeant at Arms Terrance Gainer says threats against members of Congress were up 300 percent in the first few months of 2010.
FBI agents arrested the North Carolina man who threatened Shuler, and prosecutors charged him with threatening to kill a federal official — a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Court records show that the case was dropped after he was found incompetent to stand trial.
Shuler says he was shaken — and that he has taken precautions to protect himself and his family. Family members have altered their daily routines to be more security conscious, and Shuler said that he and his wife have obtained concealed-weapons permits.
“You get a threat like that, and you start to rethink your priorities,” Shuler said.
Though each threat case is different, the FBI documents reveal some common characteristics. The suspects are mostly men who own guns, and several had been treated for mental illness. Most of the suspects had just undergone some kind of major life stress, such as illness or the loss of a job.
In February 2009, a man left voice mail messages for Stabenow in several of her Michigan offices.
“We’re gonna [expletive] get you,” he said in one message. “We’re gonna get you with a lot of [expletive] bolt action. Like we did RFK; like we did MLK. We know who you are. We’ll get you.”
FBI agents tracked the calls to a 54-year-old Texas man who lived alone — and who at one time had owned a 20-gun arsenal of handguns, shotguns and rifles. According to the documents, he told officers that he was “really, really drunk” when he made the calls. He said he was just “venting” — taking out his frustrations after hearing a discussion of the Fairness Doctrine and becoming concerned that the government would attempt to abolish the radio shows of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh.
In testimony submitted to Congress, Capitol Police officials have said that the threats against lawmakers have caused them to dramatically increase their security efforts. Police who work on protective details say demands on their time have skyrocketed, and the department has requested a 54 percent increase — of $2.7 million — to fund travel for its dignitary protection officers in fiscal year 2011.
In fiscal year 2009, dignitary protection was provided at 139 congressional events, a nearly 100 percent increase over 2008. Capitol Police also moved to provide “a more robust role” to town hall meetings, including working with hundreds of law enforcement agencies.
Capitol Police made 3,626 mountain bike patrols around House and Senate office buildings, up from 3,500 from fiscal year 2008. They responded to 142 suspicious packages in 2009, compared with only 34 in 2008, and conducted 1,808 bomb sweeps, compared with 970 the year before.
The Hazardous Materials Response Team investigated an average of 38 suspicious package calls per quarter last year, compared with 32 per quarter in 2008. The team conducted 967 sweeps per quarter to ensure the security of areas where congressional meetings and sessions were being held — up from 142 each quarter in 2008. The department also dealt with 13 disturbances or demonstrations, five more than during the previous year.
“When an incident like the one in Times Square happens, it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up,” said Gainer, who recently attended a nationwide sergeant at arms meeting at which state officials were urged to put plans in place to accommodate congressional town hall meetings this summer.
“We have about 12 open cases at any given time, but most of those are relatively low threat, meaning there’s no specificity to them,” Gainer said. “But if there’s a serious threat, we’re going to have a pretty stern response.”
Law enforcement responded immediately when Ryan was threatened back home in Wisconsin. The lawmaker was out walking with his daughter when a black sport utility vehicle pulled up alongside them. “You’ve got a bull’s-eye on your head,” the driver allegedly told Ryan. “You’re gonna die, motherf—er.”
Local police records show that the driver believed Ryan had “blood on his hands” for supporting the war in Iraq. He told police that he was on disability for arthritis and that he felt “frustrated” that he could no longer support his family, the documents show.
“Congressman Ryan told me that although they receive threats quite often, this one was more specific and directed,” a Janesville police detective wrote in his report.
The man was arrested for disorderly conduct, but the U.S. Attorney’s Office decided not to prosecute him after a search of his home revealed no weapons, according to FBI documents.
Last September, the documents show that a veteran in a counseling session said he wanted to “kill everyone who does not help me” — and that he included in the list Cornyn, Rodriguez and first lady Michelle Obama. When police checked on the man, they found that he was frustrated that those individuals hadn’t helped him with a retirement claim process through the Office of Policy and Management.
According to the documents, he admitted to police that he was taking “too many medications to list” for mental health problems that included depression, anxiety and a sleep disorder. He was out of work and on disability. The man’s wife had hidden his collection of shotguns and handguns and wouldn’t let him drive the family car, fearing he would pay a visit to Rodriguez, according to FBI files.
“Veteran verbalized not knowing what he would do other than something that would get him locked up,” the responding detective wrote. “That he would get a gun and shoot everyone involved.”
With the exception of Shuler, the lawmakers identified in the FBI reports declined to discuss the threats. Their offices said they wanted to move beyond the incidents and stay focused on their work.
“We’re not going to be frightened. We’re just going to go on with our lives and keep doing our jobs. We don’t want to be defined by this,” a Lofgren staffer said. “They don’t control this. We do.”
But the threats clearly have an effect — if not on how members do their jobs, at least on how they live their lives.
“The first time you get a death threat, it’s really, really alarming, not to mention they know where you live and can find your family,” Shuler said. “It is very difficult when you serve in public office.”