NEAL CONAN, host:
Over the weekend, a routine traffic stop in Aurora, a suburb of Denver, Colorado, led to the arrest of three men, who discussed the assassination of Senator Barack Obama. Police found drugs, what they believed to be a mobile methamphetamine lab, three boxes of bullets, one bullet proof vest and two bolt-action rifles. Witnesses also say the men talked about killing Senator Obama. So far, authorities say don't know whether that was just talk at a drug party or a real plot. Pollsters say many Americans worry that the first African-American with a real chance to win the White House could be a target. Is this is something you are concern about? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. We begin with Mark Hosenball, he's an investigative correspondent for Newsweek Magazine with us on the phone from Denver, nice to have you on the program today.
Mr. MARK HOSENBALL (Investigative Correspondent, Newsweek): Thank you very much.
CONAN: And you note in a story on newsweek.com that the U.S. Attorney in Denver has downplayed this incident. Is there reason to believe that there was a serious plan?
Mr. HOSENBALL: Well, all I can say is I read the government's, you know, reports on this case that they put into court. They issued fairly lengthy complaints for arrests for these three characters that they picked up over the weekend. And this, you know, these people had definitely, at least according to the, I mean, the suspects themselves, trashed each other and said that they had discussed such a plot against Senator Obama. They had these two high-powered - or apparently high-powered rifles - one of which, the particular type of rifle was actually part of the discussion about Senator Obama. And they were apparently white racists, they talked about going after him because he was black. And you know, they're in the right place. The real question - so they had the means, they had the motive. The real question is whether they would have gotten the opportunity to carry this out and that seems kind of doubtful here. But I thought the government's own records in the case, the government own reports about it were pretty hair-raising, I thought.
CONAN: Yet, the U.S. Attorney has not decided yet whether to even bring charges, because it doesn't take an awful lot of a threat to prompt charges of a threat against a federally-protected official.
Mr. HOSENBALL: Well, in fact, the way it was explained to me was that it's - merely uttering a threat against such an official is a federal crime. They haven't brought such charges in this case. That actually surprises me a little bit. I did check this morning and I'm told the investigation is still very much ongoing. Certainly investigators inside the government are taking it very seriously, even though the U.S. Attorney's office here in Colorado, which is going to make the decision principally whether to increase the charges or not, is playing it down.
I think if these people were from a different persuasion or were of a different color, it's arguable as to whether this might not have all been - already been a giant sort of terrorism story with the attorney general and the Homeland Security secretary out there, you know, baying for blood. So, it's a little bit puzzling to me that the government, the prosecutors anyway, have played it down as harshly as they can. These people were clearly drug-crazed but you know, people who do these things are often crazy anyway, and drugs just sort of adds an element to it. It might degrade their ability to actually carry something out, but it doesn't necessarily degrade their danger to either themselves or the people around them, or to somebody like Obama.
CONAN: And it seems that this was unraveled by mere happenstance, a stop at a checkpoint.
Mr. HOSENBALL: Again, according to the government's own reports of what happened was that these characters were partying all night on methamphetamine in a couple of hotels in the Denver area, one of which I later checked into, and they ran out of cigarettes. And they ran out of cigarettes, so one of the guys got in a pickup truck and went out for cigarettes. And he was addled on methamphetamine, he was weaving in and out of the traffic in the middle of the night and a policeman in Aurora, Colorado, a suburb of Denver, pulled him over. He was driving on a suspended license, when they noticed that, they started searching the car. They found these rifles, they found what they said was a mobile methamphetamines lab, they found, I think, a quantity of drug in his pocket they found some ammunition, and at that point, they pulled him in and they talked to other witnesses and they pulled in these other characters. And when they went to the hotel that I later checked into, here in Denver, they knocked on the door of one of the suspects and a woman - the voice of the man said, you can't come in, my wife's getting dressed. Then they heard a woman scream and a glass breaking and the guy jumped out the window.
CONAN: I should point out, you just checked into that same hotel by happenstance.
Mr. HOSENBALL: Yeah, by happenstance, presumably. It was interesting though, when I checked into the hotel with my son who came out here to the convention with me, later that night, maybe, I don't know, 10,12 hours later we checked in at the hotel lobby, there was nobody else there behind us except two kind of pretty nasty looking men walked in behind us - it's not a very nice neighborhood. And I thought to myself, either these guys are some sort of criminals or they could be undercover cops.
And after we done checking in, one of them pulls out FBI credentials and says, I'm with the FBI, I wanted to talk to a night manager. And we took our stuff upstairs to our room. We came back down 10 or 15 minutes later, these guys were still in deep conversation with the night manager. So, I had a feeling that there was something weird going on. When I came back from dinner, I asked the night manager, you know, why were the FBI there? He said, oh, it was just routine security precautions, and I actually asked the FBI about this the next morning and they wouldn't tell me anything. I kind of - my antennae were twitching that something might be going on here but I didn't really know what was going on until I actually learned about it, to give them credit, from the Rocky Mountain News website.
CONAN: Now U.S. Attorney Tony Eid did say...
Mr. HOSENBALL: Troy Eid, I think...
CONAN: Troy, excuse me. The law recognizes a difference between a true threat, one that can be carried out, and the reported racist rantings of a drug addict.
Mr. HOSENBALL: Well, this gets to the issue of opportunity. You know, as I say, I think these people had the means, which was the guns. I think they had the motive which is that they're, you know, racists, white-racists, white supremacists, they hated Obama. But could they have carried out any of the threats that they discussed, did they have the opportunity? And, you know, the security around Obama is very high. It's not clear that they had formulated a very detailed plan for doing this although, they talked about grassy knolls and things like that but when you hear the word grassy knoll you already - your eyes glaze over a little bit that this people are maybe a little bit nutty. So, there is a big question there as to whether they had the capability of carrying out what they were talking about doing. On the other hand, all they needed was, perhaps, a little bit less drugs, you know, a little bit more organization and a very little bit of luck. And you know, this could have been very feasible maybe.
CONAN: Nevertheless, they are going to be brought up on drug and gun charges among others. And thanks very much, we appreciate your time today.
Mr. HOSENBALL: Okay.
CONAN: We were talking with Mark Hosenball, investigative correspondent for Newsweek and wrote about the Denver plot, and you can read his story at newsweek.com. And here with us in studio 3A is Peter Hart, Chairman of Hart Research, a strategic research firm in Washington, D.C. Thanks very much for coming in today.
Mr. PETER HART (Chairman, Hart Research): Delighted to be here, Neal.
CONAN: And I wanted to ask you about the fear of assassination. I understand this has come up in focus groups that you've conducted.
Mr. HART: Ah, it is true. First of all, I should tell Mark that I stayed at the JW Marriot in Cherry Creek and I found the accommodations just fine and we never had any problems so it's not all hotels in the Denver area. We've been doing a series of focus groups throughout this year for the Annenberg Center for Public Policy at the University of Pennsylvania and we just conducted one Monday in Denver, and with Hispanic voters. And one of the things that comes up in every single one of these focus groups - and we don't ask it, it wouldn't be an area which we would pursue at all - and that is a fear and a concern about Barack Obama being assassinated. It's not mentioned by a lot of people but it can often be mentioned by one person with other heads nodding in agreement.
CONAN: So you think it's something that's quite common.
Mr. HART: Well, quite common might be a little strong term. I think I would just say something that is certainly on the minds of people. And something that, it, sort of, is, in the broad sense of things, a fear, an uncertainty in terms of what it means. And the people who bring it up often are supporters of Obama, it's not meant in any other respect.
CONAN: And what do they say when they raise it?
Mr. HART: What they just raise it as a fear and then it seems to go into two directions. One direction, obviously, is the nation and can the nation really put itself through the loss of a president. I mean, we could see with even my good friend and colleague, Tim Russert, how the nation was put through a very wrenching period - well, when you get the president of the United States we all think back to John F. Kennedy.
CONAN: You and I do this, a lot of people younger than...
Mr. HART: That's true. But it's still an indelible mark in our history and certainly, you know, President Reagan, the same thing and - where we're at - and I think that that, sort of, concerned wrenching feeling of what it means for a nation and the need to knit a nation back together. And that's there. And I think then the other fear that gets mentioned is what would this mean in the black community? How would the black community react? Would that lead to racial riots and difficulty on that front?
CONAN: That's something we've not seen for at least several years, anyway. But nevertheless, we're talking with Peter Hart, the chairman of Hart Research. He'd done focus groups about, well, about this election and where people, he says, have, without being asked, mentioned their concern about the possibility of an attack on Senator Barack Obama either as candidate or later, if he does get elected, as president of the United States. You're listening to Talk of the Nation coming to you from NPR News. And let's get some callers on the line to discuss this, George is with us. George, from Cincinnati.
GEORGE (Caller): Yes, hello.
GEORGE: I'm calling because I - let me preface this by saying that I'm a Huckabee conservative. I'm - I hold no brief for Senator Obama. I'm a surgeon and I also - I live in a rural area near Cincinnati. And I'm gun enthusiast, I spend a lot of time at a shooting range and then a gun club. And while I - I will say I have never heard anything like an overt threat even in a joking way, I'm very concerned about the very vicious things that are said in private circles that I hang out in about Senator Obama. Things that, as someone who grew up in North Georgia in the 1950s, early 1960s, that I can tell you are just horrible. Things that I have not heard said in quite sometime. There's a lot of, what I can only call, over prejudice, even racism, even hatred. And I worry that in the more, shall we say, extreme circles than those that I circulate in that there could be much more irresponsible patter going on. And so I do worry that someone would try to assassinate Senator Obama.
CONAN: George, thanks very much for that. I wonder, Peter Hart, obviously a focus group is a social setting, people of all different types - I'm not sure you would hear those kinds of sentiments.
Mr. HART: No, you don't, but people will express their racial hostilities, and we've been doing some groups in Philadelphia and in Charlottesville, and you can certainly pick up those concerns. But there's a huge difference - I mean, there are also concerns about John McCain's age. So you get various concerns about each of the candidates but there's a huge difference between a concern and something that takes us into violence.
CONAN: Now let's talk with Kristen. Kristen with us from Conway, Arkansas.
KRISTEN (Caller): Hi there. Yeah, I wanted to comment on how - he was talking about how we have had it on our minds, and I definitely think that - just like the previous caller, I'm from Arkansas, being from the South, I encounter people from very backwoods hometowns that still have that really prejudiced mindset, and that's the thing that gives me the fear that something could happen to Obama or even, you know, another politician like him. Just that - the fact that there's a lot of people that still don't view us all as one level and one...
CONAN: When you say another politician like him, do you mean African-American?
KRISTEN: Or even females like Hillary, you know. Just because, you know, she's white doesn't mean that there might not be a threat toward her from someone who doesn't think that she's capable, you know. Or thinks that - has some moral problem with her.
CONAN: Yeah, I understand. Peter Hart, I don't know if you did the focus groups at that time, but did Senator Clinton - any similar concerns about Senator Clinton?
Mr. HART: No. There was tremendous polarization related it to Senator Clinton. But I think that it's important to understand that when we talk about this, this is a concern but it's obviously a small fringe. And the danger that we're doing is that are we promoting this and do we bring this discussion to a level that suggests something - a dialog that shouldn't be in the middle of the mix? That's the other side of it.
CONAN: Joe's with us. Joe, calling from Charlotte, North Carolina.
JOE (Caller): Yeah, the thing is - about this subject. I'm, like, 62 years old, Vietnam era veteran. And, at least for the last eight years, I have just been almost depressed about the situation that the administration has brought us to, and the way our name is thawed up around the world. And I got to admit, even before that, you know, I got to the point where I was so jaded over politics that I had just, kind of, given up. I had become complacent, I just let go and said, the hell with it.
Well, I - recently I've become very energized about listening to Senator Obama. And I - and for the first time in years I have - begin to feel a bit of hope that really we can bring our nation back. We are retrievable and we can get there, we can do this. I've really become energized. Well, I got to tell you something. The thought that someone would do that, that someone would assassinate him is so terrible to me that, I swear to you, I would throw up my hands and I would walk away, and I would say that we, as a nation, had become irretrievable. And it would prove to everyone and our critics around the world that, yes, we were irretrievable and we are lost forever.
CONAN: Well, Joe, we did recover from other assassinations and even that of Dr. Martin Luther King. So, it may not be as dire - obviously it would be an awful terrible thing - but perhaps not quite as dire as you paint the picture.
JOE: Well, you know, I guess my picture is painted because of the fact that I'm 62 and because of the fact that I've looked through so many administrations. I've seen so many things come out of Washington that disgusted me, that I'm at the point now where I'm looking for something positive, something good to happen.
JOE: I just - I'm not sure I could take another assassination.
CONAN: Joe, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it. And Peter Hart, thank you very much for your time today. Thank you.
Mr. HART: My delight. Thank you.
CONAN: Peter Hart, the chairman of Hart Research. He's done focus groups that included people bringing up the possibility, their fears about the assassination of Barack Obama. Tomorrow, Ira Flatow will be here with Science Friday and we'll be back again on Monday. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News, I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
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