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Target Wellstone

BY RUSS WELLEN
09.07.2004 | BOOKS

American Assassination: The Strange Death of Senator Paul Wellstone
By Four Arrows and Jim Fetzer
Vox Pop, 199 pages, $14.00

So fierce is the competition in the crime fiction market today that only the cozy genre of mystery can still get away with a single murder victim. In padding the body count, however, authors lose sight of the first rule of a good crime novel: reanimate the corpse. In other words, the reader must get to know and care about the deceased.

When the plane carrying Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone to the funeral of a state lawmaker's father crashed, his wife, daughter, three staff members, and two pilots died as well. By writing American Assassination: The Strange Death of Senator Paul Wellstone (on Sander Hicks's new Vox Pop imprint), Four Arrows and Jim Fetzer honor all the victims. But demonstrating that a crime--massacre actually--was committed requires showing how Wellstone's Senate career constituted a monument to humanitarianism that demanded to be toppled as sure as Saddam's statue in Firdos Square, Baghdad.

Unfortunately, sniping from the left that he failed to hew to the party line obscured Wellstone's achievements (documented in an appendix to the book). In fact, his comprehensive approach to progressive causes, from reforming American farm policy to opposing GATT and NAFTA, paralleled how the right leaves no stone unturned in its relentless quest to roll back any legislation that could conceivably be called enlightened.

In light of the suspicious circumstances under which he died, you can't help but think that the right saw him as not one, but a plague of gadflies that had to be eradicated. He was in fact exposed to aerial spraying--intentionally, the authors maintain--while inspecting the effect of glycophospate on Colombian coca fields. With each vote, Wellstone more and more resembled a man marching to his doom.

Not only the mainstream, but also most of the independent media has used Wellstone campaign manager Jeff Blodgett's profession of certainty that pilot error was at fault to back off from allegations of foul play. In other words, don't let them tar you with that darn conspiracy theory label because when you try to peel it off your skin comes with it.

But conspiracy theories don't only play with the Generation X-Files crowd; now they're scrutinized by the ever-more-credentialed, such as Dr. David Ray Griffin, the author of The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions About the Bush Administration and 9/11. Like Griffin, Jim Fetzer is a professor of philosophy (at the University of Minnesota, Duluth) and he's polished his philosopher's stone with three books on the death of JFK. Co-author Four Arrows is an associate professor at Northern Arizona University. (Though the authors fail to describe the division of duties, the interviews Arrows conducts suggests he's the leg man.)

Applying the principles of philosophy to the crime, Fetzer claims that when an investigator examining a hypothesis violates "the requirement of total evidence," "special pleading"--intentionally selecting evidence to create a biased result--occurs.

Excluding, and perhaps removing, evidence is exactly what official bodies seem to have set out to do. Only an hour after first responders arrived on the crash site at 11 a.m., the FBI materialized on the scene. In other words, they would have departed from St. Paul at 9:30--when Wellstone's plane was taking off.

After possibly spiriting away the cockpit voice recorder, the FBI announced the crash wasn't the work of terrorists. Meanwhile, the National Traffic Safety Board's lead investigator, Frank Hildrup, when asked why there was no public hearing, responded that they were reserved for "high profile cases."

As for the cause, at first the NTSB blamed icy conditions. However, when the plane didn't land at the Eveleth-Virginia (Minnesota) Airport, its assistant manager, Gary Ulman, had no qualms about immediately taking off to search for the crash site. Others, such as National Center for Atmospheric Research meteorologist Ben Bernstein, downplayed the icing theory as well.

Besides, the Beechcraft King Air A-10 boasted an elaborate de-icing system--you learn a lot about aviation in this book--such as pneumatic de-icing boots that inflate and deflate to break ice from the leading edges of the wing and tail. And when the King Air's maintenance records turned out to be in order, mechanical problems, along with the icy conditions, were disqualified as causes.

The NTSB then turned to the highly rated pilot, Richard Conry, a favorite of Wellstone's who had passed an FAA flight check two days before. Sixty seconds after his last conversation with the ground, during which he reported no problems, the King Air began drifting south, whereas a normal landing would have continued straight west. In other words, discounting his turn in the opposite direction before crashing, the NTSB adopted the conclusion that Conry and co-pilot Michael Guess's approach was too slow, stalling the plane and causing it to crash.

But even if the pilots failed to check airspeed and altitude--an almost unimaginable lapse--they would have been alerted by an alarm in plenty of time to regain speed. In other words, by arriving at this conclusion the NTSB demonstrated the same lack of concern for public scrutiny as the FBI did when it arrived early at the crash scene. More likely, the authors maintain, the King Air lost airspeed and altitude because the pilots were unable to control it.

Understanding the crash, they believe, requires establishing why the King Air suddenly stopped communicating. Another man on his way to the funeral, driving within a couple blocks of the airport at the time of the crash experienced otherworldly cell-phone interference. He reported hearing a sound "between a roar and loud humming voice...oscillating...screeching and humming noise."

Most responsible for narrowing the authors' search for a cause was the blue smoke typical of electrical fires that streamed out of the King Air's sheared fuselage for hours after the crash.

In an arresting passage, the authors cite a Time magazine article describing microwave weapons the US is developing to knock out enemy electronics. Supposedly they're capable of unleashing in an instant as much power as the Hoover Dam cranks out in a day. The authors report, among other accidents, an F-111 that crashed or aborted due simply to the radio transmissions (electromagnetic pulses) of other US military aircraft.

Suddenly the idea of electronic-jamming equipment sending a decoy VOR (landing guidance system) signal to the King Air becomes plausible. Obeying instrumentation that's tricked into believing the plane is several degrees off course, the pilot follows the signal straight into the ground.

Possible means mapped out, what about more specific motives than the general pugnaciousness of this former wrestler's progressivism? First, at the time of the crash the Republicans' Senate majority was in jeopardy because Vermont's Jim Jeffords had bolted the party. In an attempt to redress the balance, they threw all their support behind Norm Coleman, Wellstone's opponent in the upcoming election. When Wellstone voted against granting the president power to invade Iraq, his popularity surged.

Wellstone reported that before the Senate vote on Iraq, Dick Cheney had warned him that bucking the administration could result in severe consequences for both him and the state of Minnesota. Neither was the vice president happy about the legislation Wellstone had introduced to improve protection against asbestos poisoning. Cheney had left Halliburton in a position to be sued by its insurer for asbestos claims staggering in their potential for remuneration. Only his assumption of the vice presidency granted him immunity from deposition.

After Wellstone's funeral, you may remember how Republicans claimed the event was partisan, essentially garnering Democrats free campaign airtime. This, of course, stood in contrast, to the heartfelt way the Republican party grieved--by transferring money designated to fight Wellstone to defeating Democratic Georgia Senator Max Cleland. Corporate America was equally broken up: From the instant Wellstone's death was reported by AP--the rise in corporate fortunes that a Republican Senate signified needed no spelling out to investors--the Dow rose steadily.

By unraveling the conditions under which he died, Four Arrows and Jim Fetzer have not only paid tribute to Paul Wellstone, they've brought to light the facts surrounding yet another suspicious plane crash in a lineage that extends back to Governor Mel Carnahan and Senators John Tower and Hale Boggs.

Finally, let us recall the prescience Wellstone demonstrated in his statement to the Senate on Iraq: "The United States should unite the world against Saddam and not allow him to unite forces against us."

About the Author
Russ Wellen is an editor at Freezerbox who specializes in foreign affairs and nuclear deproliferation.
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