Threats to Members Hard to Calculate
One came from a high school student who was goofing off on the school computer during civics lessons. Another from a man angry over an automated call. And another from a man who claimed he grew up with President Barack Obama in Wisconsin.
Threats against Members of Congress are up again this year, surpassing the pace set during the much-hyped debate over health care, but when you get behind the numbers, experts say it’s not clear that the danger is any higher.
The Capitol Police recorded 53 communicated threats from Oct. 1 to March 31, said Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer, who is also chairman of the Capitol Police Board. That’s more than the 47 threats recorded from October 2009 to March 2010, when the contentious health care debate raged on Capitol Hill.
Also on the rise are reports of what Capitol Police call “directions of interest,” or correspondence that may be disconcerting to a Member but is not quite a threat on its face.
“‘I wish you weren’t around anymore.’ ‘I hate you.’ ‘If you drop dead tomorrow I’d enjoy it,’” Gainer said. “That’s not a crime. But it might be a sliver of a dot we’d want to connect.”
Members reported 1,211 of these messages from October to March, compared with 1,025 over the same time period a year earlier.
Despite news reports to the contrary, however, these numbers do not show that threats are at an all-time high.
One issue is that the number of reported threats is just that — threats that were reported.
After the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) in January, several Members said they had not reported every threat or direction of interest they received in the past.
Gainer said Congressional law enforcement officials have struggled with persuading staff to report suspicious communication.
“There was a history of the staff kind of saying, ‘Oh, that’s Joe. He always does that,’” he said.
Gainer did not release a breakdown of recorded threats by month, so it is not possible to tell whether more threats and directions of interest were reported after the shooting than before. But Gainer said he believes Members may be more sensitive to directions of interest post-shooting.
That doesn’t surprise Howard Snyder, a Bureau of Justice Statistics official.
“When people’s sensitivity goes up, things get reported more often,” he said. But he added that more reported crime does not always mean more crime in general. “Reporting of crime and the incidence of crime may not be related in their trends.”
In addition, the Capitol Police have kept collated records for only the past year or two, so there are no data to prove threats are at a record high.
To establish reliable trends, several more years of data are needed, said University of Colorado Denver Professor Callie Rennison, an expert in crime reporting.
“This is really not much time to know anything,” she said. “Give me five years worth of data or three or four data points and we can tell if reporting is up.”
Nevertheless, House Administration Chairman Dan Lungren said he has noticed ebbs and flows.
“At certain times, you take a certain snapshot and you see you have more and you go another six months and you have less,” the California Republican said.
For his part, Gainer said he can tell some things about the people who make threats. Many times, he said, alcohol or mental illness is a factor, though he did not give specifics.
This year, the contents of the threats are more varied, Gainer said.
“The broad range I’d classify as social economic concerns, health care, veterans’ assistance, Social Security, taxes,” he said. “There wasn’t one thing, unlike what we saw during the health care debate. During that time frame, everything was very much oriented toward the health care debate.”
The FBI closed 20 investigations into threats reported from October 2009 to March 2010, less than half of the total number of threats reported during that time period, according to FBI records obtained in early April through the Freedom of Information Act.
Of those, six threats specifically mentioned that the threat pertained to the health care debate. In only three of the cases did a court carry out punitive action.
Eight cases were closed after the investigation ran cold, while in another eight investigations, agents made contact with the perpetrator and a U.S. attorney declined to prosecute. The outcome of the last case was unclear.
As of early April, investigations into just four threats made from October 2010 to March 2011 have been closed.
Since the FBI only releases records of closed cases, it is unclear how many threats were investigated and how many remain unsolved.
A Closer Look at Six Closed Cases of Threats
The FBI has closed investigations into at least 26 cases of threats sent to Members of Congress in 2010. Here are a few representative cases:
• On Jan. 5, 2010, a man left a threatening voice mail message at then-Sen. Russ Feingold’s (D)office in Green Bay, Wis.
“I’m going to hunt you down and I’m going to kill you,” the man said.
When the FBI traced the call and interviewed the man, it turned out he was angry about receiving a robocall about health care.
“At the end of the call, the receiving party was told that they could be connected directly to their Senator if they pressed ‘1.’ The party was connected to Sen. Feingold’s office and the threatening message was left,” according to the FBI file. The man “advised that he was upset with the telemarketer and did not intend to threaten Sen. Feingold.”
The case was closed without prosecution.
• On Feb. 26, 2010, the day then-Sen. Jim Bunning tried to block legislation to extend unemployment benefits on the Senate floor, a man called the Republican’s Louisville, Ky., office.
“Sen. Bunning, you motherf—er, if I lose my unemployment benefits, you know, I’m gonna blow your f—ing head off your head,” the man said, according to FBI records. “You motherf—er, and you know what? I’m comin’ after your f—ing family.”
The investigation ran cold when the FBI was unable to trace the man’s phone number. The case was closed the following month.
• On April 1, 2010, a man left seven harassing phone messages at the office of Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.).
“Congressman Costa felt threatened by the phone calls because the caller referenced his desire to ‘drag his f—ing ass out to the west side,’” if he came to Rolinda and Kerman. The caller also referenced a friend of Costa’s by name.
But even though the FBI made contact with and identified the caller, a prosecutor declined to charge the man.
“Given the absence of a direct threat, prosecution under federal statute is not possible,” according to the FBI file.
• On June 10, 2010, an email was sent through a Web form on Rep. Peter Welch’s (D-Vt.) website.
“BP is not responsible for ‘Obama’s Oil Slick,’” the email read. “If you stop the dividends when I rely on to feed my family, I will find you, and I will kill you.”
Agents tracked the email to a Georgia man, who admitted sending it.
The man agreed to pretrial diversion, including mandatory counseling and probation.
• On Oct. 1, 2010, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) received several threatening voice mail messages from the same caller, who said, “Someone moved my hand when I pointed the gun at you,” and, “You think what’s mine is yours … kiss your ass goodbye.”
FBI agents tracked the number to a Wisconsin man whom they interviewed and found to be “disheveled in appearance and delusional.”
He made a series of outlandish claims, including that he was angry at McCain because the Senator seized his bank accounts and that the gun comment referred to an incident at a campground in Cornell, Wis., years earlier.
“A gun had been glued to (the caller’s) left hand and McCain had started a riot at the campground,” the man told agents. “During the riot, McCain was shot.”
The man also claimed he had dated Brooke Shields and Pat Benatar, was an ex-cop and a cameraman at NBC, knew President Barack Obama from when they grew up in Wisconsin and had been in the Russian space station after being rescued by astronauts.
Prosecutors declined to take action against the man because of his apparent mental health issues.
• On Nov. 3, 2010, Rep. Mike Simpson’s office received an email with the subject line “Guns.” The email read, “I want to use mine on you.”
The email was traced to Idaho Falls High School and possibly a teacher. The FBI interviewed the teacher, who told them that on the day the email was sent, he had instructed students to research Idaho’s Congressional delegation.
On Nov. 9, 2010, FBI agents interviewed a senior at the school who admitted sending the message to the Idaho Republican “as a joke.” He said he “did not mean it.”
Because the student is a minor, the assistant U.S. attorney on the case declined to prosecute.