News & Politics

FBI Uses Astroturf Group for Cover to Snag Man Who Threatened Senator's Life

If you wanted to lure a violent anti-health-care nut to a undercover interview, who would you pose as? Looks like the astroturf Americans For Prosperity fit the FBI's bill.

When the FBI needed to match the threatening voice on the anonymous voice mails left for Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. -- calls that promised her murder -- to the phone number they came from, an FBI special agent posed as a representative of a high-profile group opposed to health-care reform, Patients United Now, "a project of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation," according to its Web site.

But neither Patients United nor Americans for Prosperity were asked permission for their use as a cover, according to FBI spokesperson Fred Gutt, who works from the bureau's Seattle office, because when they called the number on Patients' United Web site, they found it was disconnected. According to Gutt, the investigators therefore assumed that Patients United Now was defunct.

"We normally don't do that with a known operating organization," Gutt told AlterNet, referring to the FBI's use of the group as a cover.

He said that the FBI did not contact Americans for Prosperity, Patients United's parent organization, before calling Wilson. The PUN Web site clearly states the group's relationship to Americans for Prosperity Foundation. The FBI contacted Americans for Prosperity after the fact, he said.

"We were working a little more quickly than we usually would," Gutt said. "Was it persistent enough? Probably not."

Americans for Prosperity was among a handful of large right-wing lobbying organizations that marshaled opposition to the recently passed health care reform law, organizing rallies featuring racist anti-Obama signs and busing Tea Party enthusiasts to anti-health-care events. Although AFP vehemently disputes charges that it is an astroturf group designed to drum up opposition to various issues, it appears that the plug was pulled on Patients United just as the battle against health care reform legislation wound down. (You can read more of AlterNet's reporting on Americans for Prosperity here.)

The suspect, Charles Allen Wilson, allegedly left a series of anonymous death threats on Sen. Murray's office voice mail, according to a criminal complaint filed Monday in U.S. District Court. The complaint states that all but one of the calls were made from a number whose caller ID details were blocked. When the FBI obtained the full phone records for Murray's office from Verizon the phone number turned out be Wilson's publicly listed home phone number.

The complaint states that, according to a member of Murray's staff, the abusive caller was a frequent and vitriolic critic, but his messages escalated to outright threats after the health-care reform bill passed.

"Just remember that as you are politicking for your reelection. It only takes one piece of lead. . . . Kill the fucking senator! Kill the fucking senator! I'll donate the lead.... Now that you've passed your health-care bill, let the violence begin. Let the violence begin," Wilson allegedly said in one voice mail.

"I hope somebody kills you, and I hope somebody kills [the President]. Yes, die, dead. You're signing my death warrant, so I want to sign yours, fucking bitch," he allegedly said in another message.

"You're dead fucking meat, Murray! You're dead fucking meat! Baby killer, Murray," he allegedly said in yet another voice mail message.

In order to ascertain that the person who made the calls was in fact Wilson (and not someone borrowing his phone), an FBI special agent phoned Wilson posing as a member of Patients United Now, and got Wilson's permission to interview him by phone. The complaint reads:

On April 1, 2010, for the purpose of further confirming that the caller on the 15 voice mails was, in fact, WILSON, FBI Special Agent Cory Cote ("S/A Cote") placed an undercover phone call to (509) 697-6970. During the call, S/A Cote disguised himself as a representative of "Patients United Now," a group that was ostensibly attempting to have the federal health-care reform legislation repealed. The call lasted approximately fourteen minutes, and it was consensually recorded by S/A Cote.

Cote got Wilson's permission to record the call. After comparing the recorded interview to the threatening voice mails, Special Agents Carolyn W. Woodbury and Cory Cote attest that Wilson made the death threats.

During the interview, Wilson told Cote he called Murray's office "every day." He also volunteered that he carried a gun. "I will not blink [ ] when I'm confronted, and that is a guarantee," he said, "It's not a threat, it's a guarantee...." Wilson has a registered .38 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver and concealed carry permit, according to the complaint.

Wilson also made other statements, according to the complaint, that linked him to the voice mails. From the criminal complaint:

(a) Wilson repeatedly expressed his strong dislike for the recent health-care reform legislation (i.e. "I hate it. I hate it!") (b) Wilson confirmed that he regularly placed calls to Senator Murray's and Senator Maria Cantwell's offices. (i.e., "I call Murray every day. I call Cantwell. They don’t like hearing from me. … I call them every day.") (c) Wilson referred to Senators Murray and Cantwell as the "Pike Street whores," as does the caller in the voicemail messages; (d) Wilson also referred to Senator Murray as "sneaker shoes Murray," a phrase that also was stated on some of the voicemail messages; and (e) Wilson made the following remarks, which are similar to the rhetoric in many of the voicemail messages. "They need to be strung up, and I mean put the gallows. I will take no prisoners. …  And I don't care what they think. They want to come throw me in jail, they can go ahead and do that. Thats fine."

Although we were unable to reach Americans for Prosperity for comment, AFP President Tim Phillip gave the following statement to the New York Times: "As A.F.P. Foundation has said repeatedly, we condemn any threats of violence or acts of violence. The F.B.I. did not contact A.F.P. Foundation about this matter. Over the last year, we have been one of the leading grassroots organizations opposing a Washington takeover of our health care. Perhaps that is why they chose to use our name, though they did not notify us."

Lindsay Beyerstein's reporting has appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate and many other publications. She was the recipient of a 2009 Project Censored Award. Based in Brooklyn, she blogs at Focal Point, a Big Think blog.