House Speaker John Boehner said Thursday that the government “would never have known” that a Cincinnati area man was allegedly plotting this week to wage jihad on the U.S. Capitol with semi-automatic weapons were it not for a wiretap ordered by a secret foreign intelligence court.
Boehner’s statement added intrigue and a tinge of politics to Wednesday’s arrest in Ohio of 20-year-old Christopher Lee Cornell, shortly after he allegedly bought two M-15 rifles and 600 rounds of ammunition with plans to spray bullets on congressional officials.
The Republican leader’s comments also seemed to reflect rising unease in Washington, with the Islamic State and Al-Qaida seemingly in open competition to whip up attacks on western nations.
An FBI affidavit filed Wednesday in federal court in Cincinnati to support a criminal complaint against Cornell said that a tipster alerted authorities last fall that he had posted statements, videos and other content expressing support for the Islamic State and violent jihad. It made no mention of a wiretap by the National Security Agency, activity that normally is classified.
Asked about the tipster and social media, Boehner replied: “We’ll let the whole story roll out there, but it was far more than just that.”
The FBI affidavit included several direct quotes from Cornell over several months.
Boehner made no pretenses about seeking to tie the incident to his desire for Congress to reauthorize the decades-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which created a special court to secretly oversee U.S. intelligence agencies’ electronic monitoring of suspected spies and terrorists. The government’s wiretap programs were drawn into extensive controversy during the Bush administration with disclosures that Americans were subjected to warrantless surveillance.
“The first thing that strikes me is that we would have never known about this had it not been for the FISA program and our ability to collect information on people who pose an imminent threat,” Boehner said. He made clear that he was setting a theme that Americans would hear “for months and months to come as we attempt to reauthorize the FISA program.”
“Our government does not spy on Americans unless they are Americans who are doing things that, frankly, tip off our law enforcement officials to an imminent threat,” he said. “And it was our law enforcement officials, and those programs, that helped us stop this person before he committed a heinous crime in our nation’s capital.”
For Boehner, it was the second threat of violence to emerge in the last couple of months near his southwest Ohio district. A former bartender at a Cincinnati country club, Michael Robert Hoyt, 44, was indicted a week ago on charges he threatened to kill Boehner, including by poisoning his drinks.
Cincinnati television station WCPO reported that Hoyt blamed Boehner because he was fired and told police he was Jesus Christ and would kill Boehner because the speaker was mean to him, also blaming Boehner for the spread of the deadly Ebola virus.
“We get reminded every week of the dangers that are out there,” Boehner said of that incident. “My personal situation, I’m not going to get into it. It’s one thing to get a threat from far away. It’s another when it’s three doors from where you live. Obviously, this young man’s got some mental health issues that need to be addressed, and I hope he gets the help he needs.”
Echoing Boehner’s comments, Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah said there are more threats against the Capitol and members of Congress than people realize.
“I had a person a year and a half, two years ago, show up at the Capitol with a weapon, telling that he wanted to see his congressman, which I’m the congressman from Utah,” said Chaffetz, who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “So we’ve got his picture up, and they took care of that threat and put it away, and I don’t think you ever read about it. Threats like that happen (on a) much more regular basis than anybody realizes.”
“You’re all there, you see it and you feel it,” Chaffetz added “Those types of things happen – you have people who don’t have the mental capacity to make rational decisions. Who knows what they might do? Weapons are frequently taken off of people who are trying to get into the building. Who knows what they might try to do?”