Published on Monday, October 25, 2010 by
From Protester to Senator, FBI Tracked Paul Wellstone
It started with a fingerprint of a 25-year-old college professor who opposed the Vietnam War and ended with a search for his remains, 32 years later, in a wooded area near
Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., and his wife Sheila jog to their campaign bus after casting their ballots in their hometown of Northfield, Minn., Tuesday morning, Nov. 6, 1990. Wellstone defeated Sen. Rudy Boschwitz in the general election. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
The FBI's files on Paul and Sheila Wellstone, many of which are being made public for the first time, shed new light on the extent of the relationship between the FBI and the political activist who would go on to become a U.S. senator from Minnesota.
Some of the information uncovered in the 219 pages was new to one of his closest confidantes, former Wellstone campaign manager and state director Jeff Blodgett.
The files show that although the FBI initially took interest in Wellstone as part of the broader surveillance of the American left, the agency later served as his protector, investigating death threats the freshman senator received for his views on the first Gulf War, and, in the end, helping sift through the wreckage of the fatal plane crash that killed Wellstone and seven others eight years ago.
Wellstone's surviving sons declined to comment on the documents, which were obtained in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by MPR News.
The FBI did not include 76 pages related to the National Transportation Safety Board, the agency that investigated the crash. A request for those records is pending.
Wellstone traveled to Washington, D.C. in January 1991 on the green school bus that became famous in his underdog fight against incumbent Republican Sen. Rudy Boschwitz. He arrived in the middle of a tense debate over the Persian Gulf conflict and, nine days after being sworn in, voted against a resolution authorizing U.S. military force against Iraq.
Within the first two weeks of his term, Wellstone began receiving death threats for his views on the war. The FBI files provide a detailed description of the angry and sometimes violent calls the Democratic senator received. One man called Wellstone's office and threatened to "throttle" him. A caller from
The threats alarmed Wellstone's staff, and led the senator's state director, Jeff Blodgett, to contact the FBI and other authorities. An FBI agent recommended that a "trap and trace"  be placed on Wellstone's
"We were shocked and surprised by these kinds of calls," Blodgett said in an interview last week. "We certainly didn't expect that death threats would be part of the job of being a
Blodgett said Wellstone was saddened by the threats "and as surprised as everyone else was." In his memoir, "Conscience of a Liberal," Wellstone said his fledging political career was spiraling downward within a few short weeks, as he attracted opposition for his views on the Gulf War and for his decision to hold an anti-war press conference next to the
"There were threats on my life," Wellstone wrote. "I wished I had never been elected."
The FBI files indicate that the agency took the threats seriously. Investigators tried to track down the threatening callers and kept detailed information about their efforts.
The documents show that an FBI agent traveled to "Marine," (sic)
The man told the FBI agent that the receptionist was "snotty" and hung up on him. He said he called back and spoke to a "polite receptionist." He told her, "Tell Senator Wellstone that Saddam Hussein appreciates what he's doing."
Federal prosecutors declined to file charges against the caller, and the FBI was unable to locate the other callers. Wellstone continued to receive threats, including a call from a man in February 1995 who said, "I'm watching you senator and I'm going to kill you within the week." Wellstone was assigned a protective detail for the week of the threat.
FBI spokesman Steve Warfield declined to comment on the Wellstone files, but Warfield and former FBI agents said that threats against members of Congress are relatively common.
"I would say as active as (Wellstone) was and as liberal as he was and as much as he was against the war, I'd say that's a relatively small number" of threats, said Nick O'Hara, who served as the Special Agent in Charge of the FBI's Minneapolis office from 1991 to 1994.
O'Hara added that although the number of threats Wellstone received might not have been unusual, it likely took a psychological toll on the junior senator.
"Somebody's who's been in office and is aware of the crank calls that come in might not be as upset as a first-time senator who gets that first call and he starts thinking about his wife and his family," he said.
Wellstone did not pursue a traditional path to the
The FBI took note of the bushy-haired college professor when he was arrested on May 7, 1970 at a protest against the Vietnam War at the
Most of the names in the 1970 documents have been redacted, making it impossible to separate Wellstone out from the other defendants. One defendant pled guilty, another had the charges dismissed, and another was acquitted. The documents state that the rest of the defendants were found guilty during a jury trial in
Neither the FBI files nor available court records indicate how Wellstone's case was resolved.
In a document sent to FBI headquarters, the head of the FBI's
The FBI obtained a copy of Wellstone's fingerprint card from the
O'Hara, the former head of the FBI's Minneapolis office, said that the FBI used to routinely investigate protests that occurred on federal property.
"There were sit-ins. There were break-ins. There was blood spilled over Selective Service files," he said. "There were a number of minor federal crimes committed. And back then, there maybe wasn't the patience that there might be now."
O'Hara joined the FBI as a special agent in 1963, but did not work in
Coleen Rowley, the 9/11 whistleblower and former chief legal advisor in the FBI's Minneapolis office, said the documents from 1970 shed light on the FBI's far-reaching efforts to quash political dissent.
"I think this really is valuable ... because it's basically history repeating what we have right now," she said, noting the recent FBI raids at the homes of several anti-war organizers in
Wellstone's arrest occurred less than a year before the official end of Cointelpro, a series of secret domestic surveillance programs created by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to monitor and disrupt groups deemed to be a threat to national security. When the operation got underway in the 1950s it focused on suspected communists, but by the 1960s it had expanded to include broader groups, including civil rights organizers and anti-war protesters.
"So '70 would've hit you right in the midst of this," Rowley said. "In fact, that probably was the peak of the time when this was going on."
As for Wellstone, Blodgett said the senator "would've probably chuckled at it because he was exercising his free speech rights as an American and would've thought it was funny that the FBI would've taken notice of that and put it into a file somewhere."
Blodgett added, "You would think they'd have better things to do with their time."
Wellstone's fingerprint card remained on file, and his activism continued. In the two decades leading up to his Senate race, he helped organize poor families and farmers in rural
When a plane carrying Wellstone, his wife, daughter, and three staffers crashed near
The plane crash occurred 11 days before the end of a tight Senate race between Wellstone and his Republican opponent Norm Coleman, spurring a flurry of conspiracy theories that the crash was not an accident.
The NTSB would later find that the crash was caused by pilot error, but the FBI pursued several criminal leads in the first two days of the investigation, according to the documents obtained by MPR News.
The plane crashed at 10:21 a.m. The documents indicate two agents from the FBI's satellite office in
The FBI files recount how agents from
Eight members of an FBI evidence response team spent two days searching the wreckage. They assisted with an initial search for aircraft parts and the flight data recorder, and then helped retrieve human remains and personal items - watches, rings, campaign buttons, keys, and coins.
The FBI files reveal, for the first time, the specific criminal leads pursued by investigators.
FBI agents investigated the claims of a caller from Jacksonville, Florida, who said that members of the American Trucking Association had planned to disconnect the plane's de-icers. The man said that Wellstone had been trying to schedule Senate hearings to expose organized crime in the trucking industry. In response to the call, a Wellstone staff member asked a Labor Committee member and a legislative director "who both indicated that they were not aware of any Senate hearing being scheduled to discuss this topic." The rest of the document has been redacted.
Agents also obtained a threatening postcard sent to Wellstone's
An FBI agent noted that the handwriting and stamp were similar to those sent to two members of the
FBI agents also interviewed a former employee of Executive Aviation, the company that employed the pilots who died in the crash. A heavily redacted report describes a conversation between an FBI agent and the former employee regarding a November 2000 incident at the company's airplane hangar.
At a closed meeting the night of the crash, the NTSB directed the investigation, with assistance from the FBI and law enforcement agencies. During the initial investigation, NTSB investigators noted several problems that the agency would later identify as key factors in the crash, including the plane's low speed, unusual sharp left turn, and the lack of any apparent problems with the plane's equipment.
FBI agents met with the lead investigator for the NTSB the following day and handed over the results of its investigation. The NTSB investigator said the agency would continue to examine the wreckage for any sign of damage to the plane, including the deicing equipment, and would interview local witnesses and investigate any previous issues with Executive Aviation.
The NTSB said it would "advise the FBI if its investigation revealed any indication that the crash was due to anything other than accidental causes."
Blodgett said that he was unaware of the FBI's investigation, but said he was not surprised.
"It's actually heartening to hear that they were extremely thorough in following every lead to make sure it was tied up," he said.
The FBI received the NTSB's final report on the plane crash in April 2004. The report brought the FBI's decades-long relationship with Wellstone to an end.
The final document states, "Inasmuch as no indication of criminal activity was indicated after exhaustive examination and analysis by the NTSB which warrants further FBI investigation, this case is considered CLOSED at
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs