Death threats and Arlen Specter: FBI reveal

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The late Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) drew a slew of death threats while in office, according to FBI records. 

Under a Freedom of Information Act request, The Hill obtained more than 1,400 pages from Specter’s FBI file. The Pennsylvania senator often attracted controversy in his public career. Specter crafted the “single bullet theory” while investigating the John F. Kennedy assassination as the Warren Commission’s assistant counsel. Switching parties twice, he brandished his centrist Republican chops often to the GOP's chagrin.

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Specter also found his fair share of death threats during his 30-year career on Capitol Hill. According to heavily redacted FBI documents, one threat was a message left on his Philadelphia office’s answering machine over a weekend in February 1983.  

“The senator will be killed Monday morning,” said the person on the recording. 

An aide to the lawmaker listened to the message that same morning — at which point Specter was already on an Amtrak train from Pennsylvania to Washington — and alerted authorities. The threat was also made to his Washington office.

Amtrak police guarded Specter during his train ride, and he was met with a detail from the U.S. Capitol Police upon his arrival in Washington.

Attempts to reach Specter were often bizarre, but not always threatening.

Soon after those threats, a man called Specter’s Washington office offering his services as a bodyguard, as he had just started a new "professional bodyguard and escort service." 

The man said that “his attorney, whom he could not identify, informed him that the senator could possibly use his assistance.” The self-described bodyguard would later tell FBI agents that he was only seeking business and didn't mean any harm. 

Various law enforcement agencies were made aware of the strange offer of help, but nothing come from the tip. Many of the FBI’s other probes into Specter’s death threats seemingly lead nowhere as well, according to records.

In at least one case, Specter took a personal interest in tracking down the source of a string of threats on his life.

In 1992, ten postcards were sent to Specter’s office in Washington. The first card read, “Arlen Specter, you are going to receive 9 additional cards. After you receive card #1, we will kill you. We did not forget you. You know who we are!”

The cards were signed by “The Committee for Women Liberation – N.Y. Chapter." The supposed group was seemingly upset over Specter’s rough treatment of Anita Hill, who testified that she was sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas during his Supreme Court Justice confirmation hearings.

Investigators tried to link fingerprints from the mail to a suspect, but partial prints continually came up inconclusive. Specter himself wanted to be kept in the loop.

“It is noted that the senator is a former prosecutor and is extremely interested in knowing if latent fingerprints are present!” said a June 1992 memo.

In addition, records show that Specter’s staff didn’t tell the senator about the threat until a second postcard was received — which incensed the Pennsylvania senator.

“Based upon conversations with the executive assistants it was learned that the senator was never notified by his staff concerning the receipt of any communications until [today] at which time the senator became upset,” read one memo.

The FBI worked with New York police and the New York Department of Motor Vehicles to track down names attached to the return addresses listed on the cards. Federal agents even attempted to craft a profile of who was likely behind the hand-written threats — looking to tie them to a prior threat investigation regarding Specter’s colleague, then-Sen. Al D'Amato (R-N.Y.). 

That profile began as “a high school educated, female Italian-American … between the ages of 18 and 30.” It would later morph into someone over 40 years old; “outspoken, dramatic, and somewhat artistic”; and likely female “or male with effeminate characteristics.”

The FBI often spent years investigating a threat against Specter before they closed the case.

In February 2009, Specter’s Pittsburgh office received an envelope with an “unidentified white powder” and a letter reading “Arlen Get out of Government or you will be removed. Thank you, America,” according to FBI records.

More than two years later, an April 2011 memo requested the investigation be closed after lab results found the substance was “consistent with a saccharin or sweetener based product similar to the commonly available ‘Sweet and Low’ product.” 

In April 1995, the FBI looked into an incident when Specter’s Philadelphia office received a faxed image of a bullet. Its sender also faxed a letter asking Specter to offer legislation that would restrict “movements of the suspicious Islamic, fundamentalist groups.” 

The FBI interviewed the man behind the faxes who blamed Middle Eastern terrorists for the Oklahoma City bombing. The bureau decided no further investigation was warranted.

Specter battled with cancer in his final Senate years. He was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2005 and underwent chemotherapy while in office.

Fearful of a challenge from the right, Specter switched parties in 2009. He, however, would later lose in a Democratic primary in 2010.

Out of office, Specter died from complications associated with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in October 2012.