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 Eveleth, Minn.
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 U.S. Department of Justice released 88 of the 125 pages in Sen. Wellstone's FBI file, and 131 of the 227 pages in his wife's file. All of the documents included in Sheila Wellstone's file are related to the plane crash that killed the couple and their daughter Marcia.
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.Angry Callers Threaten to Kill Wellstone, January 1991
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 Faribault said, "If I had a gun, I'd come after you, you SOB." Another caller said that if his son dies during his military service in the Persian Gulf, "then Wellstone will die."
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 St. Paul office phone line to locate the callers, and Blodgett agreed.
"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 U.S. senator or taking death threats would be part of the job of Senate staff."
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 Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
"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) Minn. on January 29 to meet with the man who threatened to "throttle" Wellstone. The man, whose name has been redacted from the documents, admitted that he called the office and said that he wanted to wring Wellstone's neck and throttle him.The FBI Taps Wellstone's Phone in Wake of Threats, 1991 Man Calls Sen. Wellstone's Office, Threatens to 'Start Shooting,' 1992 Wellstone Gets Threatening Calls After Radio Program, 1991
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.The FBI Investigates More Death Threats Against Wellstone in 1995
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 U.S. Senate. He formed his political opinions while active in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s, and wrote a doctoral dissertation on "Black Militants in the Ghetto: Why They Believe in Violence." In 1969, he moved to Northfield, Minn. to teach political science at Carleton College.
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 Federal Office Building in downtown Minneapolis. Wellstone and 87 others were arrested for disturbing and obstructing access to a federal building.
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 U.S. District Court in Minneapolis and received fines of either $35 or five days in jail.Wellstone Arrested at Vietnam War Protest in 1970 The FBI Tracks Court Proceedings Following Vietnam War Protest
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 Minneapolis office said the case warranted "considerable investigation." The document notes that U.S. Attorney Robert Renner "could foresee the potential blockage of federal buildings throughout the country" if the anti-war protesters were acquitted.
The FBI obtained a copy of Wellstone's fingerprint card from the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office and sent it to FBI headquarters to keep on file. A related FBI document notes that Paul David Wellstone, age 25, weighed 150 pounds, stood 5'6," and had brown hair and brown eyes.
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 Minnesota until he was transferred to the Minneapolis office in 1991. He said he was not familiar with the arrests.
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 Minneapolis.
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. Hoover ordered an end to Cointelpro operations in April of 1971, after news of the programs started to leak.
"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 Minnesota, and was once arrested for trespassing during a foreclosure protest at a bank in 1984. None of these activities are mentioned in the FBI files released by the Department of Justice.
When a plane carrying Wellstone, his wife, daughter, and three staffers crashed near Eveleth, Minn. on October 25, 2002, the FBI was among the first agencies to respond.
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 Duluth "immediately responded to the crash site," but don't specify what time they arrived. The agents assisted local authorities, who had already secured the area after determining there were no survivors, and waited for the NTSB team to arrive.The FBI Opens Its Investigation of the Fatal Plane Crash The FBI Pursues Criminal Leads in Plane Crash Investigation
The FBI files recount how agents from Bemidji and a group of 11 officials from Minneapolis arrived at the scene later that day. One of the Duluth agents jotted down the names of the deceased, and took notes on potential problems with de-icing equipment. The agent's handwritten pages span four days and provide an inside look into the investigation. The agent notes that the initial search found "no cockpit voice recorder" and "no bullet holes."
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.The FBI Investigates Threatening Postcard Sent to Wellstone's Office
Agents also obtained a threatening postcard sent to Wellstone's St. Paul office the day before the plane crash. The handwritten postcard said, in part, "We need to gut (sic) the word out for the snipper (sic) to go after people like you, not real Americans … This voter fraud you propose will get you dead."
An FBI agent noted that the handwriting and stamp were similar to those sent to two members of the U.S. House of Representatives who, along with Wellstone, voted against the October 2002 resolution authorizing the Iraq War.
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.An FBI Agent Describes Initial Investigation Into Fatal Plane Crash The FBI Compiles Maps of the Plane Crash Site Near Eveleth The FBI Investigates the Pilots of Crashed Plane
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."
The Duluth FBI agents and the Evidence Recovery Team left the crash site on October 28, and the FBI files do not refer to any subsequent investigations.
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 Minneapolis."The FBI Gathers Newspaper Articles About the Fatal Crash Duluth FBI Agent Documents Travel to Crash Site NTSB Issues Final Crash Report, FBI Closes Case