Domestic terrorismFBI details sharp increase in death threats against lawmakers

Published 26 May 2010

Threats against U.S. lawmakers increase dramatically in 2009; each threat case is different, but the FBI says there are 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

Recently a caller left a voice mail in Democratic Representative 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 had 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.

Politico’s Erika Lovley writes that the threat against Shuler is one of several detailed in 2009 FBI documents provided to Politico following a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) and Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) were threatened with assassination. Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Representative Ciro Rodriguez (D-Texas) were threatened with bodily harm. Someone told Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-Arkansas) that her throat would be cut. Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-California) was told someone would physically “f—- her up” if she held a town hall meeting in her district, according to the FBI files.

Lovley notes that there may have been more threats — the FBI would not 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 ten 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.

Each threat case is different, but 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.

The man who left voice mail messages for Stabenow in several of her Michigan offices in February 2009 — saying “We’re gonna [expletive] get you…. 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” — was 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.

Capitol Police officials have said that the threats against lawmakers have caused them to increase their security efforts dramatically. 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.

Lovley writes that:

  • 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.