WASHINGTON -- Although Ross Perot jolted his supporters at a weekend rally by announcing that a "Mafia-like" hit squad was plotting to kill him because of his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement, law enforcement officials yesterday questioned the veracity of the anonymous, third-hand death threat.
Justice Department officials said the information about an assassination plot originated from an anonymous Albuquerque, N.M., man who called a crime tip line at the Los Angeles office of the FBI Saturday night.
The man said he was calling on behalf of a Spanish-speaking man who had just gotten out of a Mexican prison where he'd heard talk of a six-person Cuban hit team organized to "take out" Mr. Perot, Justice Department spokesman John Russell said yesterday.
Mr. Russell said this kind of "third-hand and fourth-hand" information was serious enough to report to local law enforcement officials and to Mr. Perot, but "hard to characterize" in terms of credibility. He said it was typical of the kinds of threats made against high-profile figures and, as such, "not unusual."
FBI spokesman John H. Kundts said: "Every prominent person -- be they in politics or a movie star or other famous business personalities -- always seems to get these from time to time."
He said the only thing unusual about this case was that Mr. Perot chose to publicize the information, as he's done in the past. "A lot of people may get threats but don't go public with them," said Mr. Kundts. "And neither does law enforcement."
FBI officials passed the information from the New Mexico caller on to the police in Tampa, Fla., where Mr. Perot appeared Sunday without incident, to the police in Dallas where the billionaire lives, and to the Secret Service, since Mr. Perot is scheduled to be in the company of Vice President Al Gore for the NAFTA debate here tonight.
Mr. Perot, a vociferous NAFTA critic, peppered his rally Sunday in front of nearly 3,000 supporters in Tampa with talk of the assassination plot. He said he was the target of a "carefully-planned plot" by a "Mafia-like group" in favor of NAFTA "because of the huge profits they could make shipping drugs from Mexico to the United States."
He said the plan was to be carried out either that day in Tampa or tonight during his debate in Washington.
In closing the rally, he said: "In the unlikely event something should happen . . . don't spend a minute mourning. Just remember, you own the country, redouble your efforts."
The offhand remark, on the heels of his chilling announcement of the assassination plot, was reminiscent of his style at a campaign rally in Pittsburgh last year upon re-entering the presidential race.
After boldly accusing a Republican "dirty tricks squad" of wiretapping his Dallas office, and of planning to disrupt his daughter's church wedding and to smear her reputation with a doctored photo of her, he told his roused supporters: "Forget it. Don't spend five more minutes fretting about it."
Mr. Perot, whose standing in the polls has waned in recent months, has often sounded alarms of death threats, conspiracies and heinous plots, earning him a reputation as "Inspector Perot" during the campaign.
Over the years, he has claimed to have been an assassination target of North Vietnamese Communists out to get him because of his efforts to locate U.S. prisoners of war in southeast Asia, of militant Black Panthers and Texas drug dealers.
The charges of GOP dirty tricks, made last fall at rallies and on CBS's "60 Minutes" in an attempt to explain why he quit the presidential race in the summer, were never substantiated and were vigorously denied by Republicans.
Mr. Perot said his source for the accusations of smear tactics was a former California police officer. The man, discredited by the FBI, was known to investigators as a publicity hound.