Sunday, August 01, 2004

Playing politics with terror

It's bad enough that John Ashcroft's Justice Department treats domestic terrorism like an afterthought. What's outrageous is that it now appears to have raised the threat of such terrorism -- groundlessly -- to put a cloud over the Democratic National Convention.

And in the meantime, evidence continues to mount that the FBI's actual handling of domestic terrorism is dangerously inadequate.

I previously mentioned that the press reaction to the FBI's warnings that right-wing extremists might target media vehicles in Boston last week was strangely muted. But what wasn't immediately apparent was the likelihood that the reports themselves actually constituted a kind of disinformation.

Now questions are being raised about the warnings, and the reasons for the FBI circulating them in the first place. The most significant of these is from the Southern Poverty Law Center's Mark Potok, who was interviewed at length by Glynn Wilson about these warnings:
"We have had no indication whatsoever, not an inkling, that there is any kind of violent action planned by the radical right in Boston," Potok said. "We follow these groups quite closely."

How did the story -- that right-wing extremists planned to attack media vehicles -- get circulated in the first place?
Special Agent Gail A. Marcinkiewicz, Public Affairs Coordinator for the Boston FBI office, said the report on a "radical domestic terrorist group" planning an attack on media trucks in Boston was an "unconfirmed" report.

Unconfirmed reports are not usually released to the public, she said. But in this case, according to FBI guidelines on releasing information, the media was the so-called "victim." The policy is to warn potential victims even in unconfirmed cases, and since the media got the information, it was inevitably released to the public, she said.

Reading between the lines, it seems clear that news organizations internally were deeply concerned about the warnings and took various measures to reduce their exposure to the threats. According to James Ridgeway in Village Voice, Fox News went so far as to paint over all the logos on their trucks.

Strangely enough, while the warnings clearly were taken seriously, the news organizations themselves failed to investigate their grounding or question the FBI's sources. Instead, their response was oddly muted altogether, only briefly mentioning the threats and continuing to behave on-air as though they didn't exist.

And yet there were many reasons in fact to question the warnings:
Actions like the one the FBI announced in Boston do not usually come from groups like this, neo-Nazi groups that ultimately contemplate genocide as their path to power, Potok said.

"Actions like this come almost exclusively from individuals. These things are not planned in smoky rooms by hate group leaders and their lieutenants," he said. "It doesn't happen that way."

Of course, I've discussed several times the problems with the current administration's handling of domestic terrorism, particularly within the larger context of the so-called "war on terror." What's become clear is that domestic terrorism has been shoved to a back burner by Ashcroft & Co. because it interferes too directly with the administration's larger agenda -- it undercuts the administration's position that terrorism is primarily a state-supported activity that deserves a mostly military response, and moreover, many of the most serious right-wing extremists come from the same Christian fundamentalist bloc that constitutes the GOP's electoral base.

Much of that assessment is possible from a simple review of the FBI's behavior in handling key domestic-terrorism cases so far, notably that of cyanide-bomb maker William Krar.

Now comes a New York Times report that makes the same charge from within the agency:
So in early 2002, when Mr. German got word that a group of Americans might be plotting support for an overseas Islamic terrorist group, he proposed to his bosses what he thought was an obvious plan: go undercover and infiltrate the group.

But Mr. German says F.B.I. officials sat on his request, botched the investigation, falsified documents to discredit their own sources, then froze him out and made him a "pariah." He left the bureau in mid-June after 16 years and is now going public for the first time - the latest in a string of F.B.I. whistle-blowers who claim they were retaliated against after voicing concerns about how management problems had impeded terrorism investigations since the Sept. 11 attacks.

"What's so frustrating for me," Mr. German said in an interview, a copy of the Sept. 11 commission report at his side, "is that what I hear the F.B.I. saying every day on TV when I get home, about how it's remaking itself to fight terrorism, is not the reality of what I saw every day in the field."

I've had some personal experience with Mike German. He is a tall, athletic blonde man who looks like the straight arrow he is but whose features let him pass readily as a white supremacist; moreover, he's well versed in the culture and highly skilled at passing off his undercover persona.

He played a key role in a trial I covered in 1996, involving the Washington State Militia. Readers of In God's Country may recall the story: The WSM, which liked to pass itself off as a civic-minded public-interest group, also had members in leadership positions who, behind closed doors, liked to talk about blowing things up and attacking the FBI. They went so far as to hold private bomb-building classes for members. German infiltrated them by posing as an underground arms dealer, and helped them set up an "office" that allowed the FBI to record their every meeting and discussion.

When it became clear that some of their members were on the verge of violent action, the FBI decided to spring the trap:
By July 1996, mere months after their big meeting in Mount Vernon, the WSM's members had come a long way from talking about forming a big friendly neighborhood-watchdog group and manning the sandbags during floods. Now they were building bombs.

The militiamen had bought a warehouse space for stashing supplies and holding training sessions. Those sessions had quickly turned to a favorite topic: pipe bombs. By the middle of that summer, they were building the devices. Indeed, they seemed obsessed with them; it was all they talked about, just about everything they trained for.

There was one important change-up, though. When the class on July 27 had finished learning new ways to build pipe bombs, it turned its attention to learning how to get out of handcuffs. Or so the students thought.

It was a hot summer day, and the converted warehouse was still warm and stuffy for the late-afternoon gathering. But the eight participants all dutifully gathered to hear more about bomb-building techniques from the group's instructor, John Kirk.

Kirk was not merely a member of the militia. He called himself a Freeman; he had filed "sovereign citizen" papers and had served as a juror when a group of Seattle Patriots organized its own common-law court. The leader of his Seattle-based Freemen group, William Smith, was a longtime friend of LeRoy Schweitzer and, like the Montanan, was considered a guru of "constitutional law" among Patriots throughout the Northwest. Smith was one of the participants that afternoon. The four Freemen had driven up together from Seattle to Bellingham for the class. There was the usual small talk, and then Kirk dove right in, spending the better part of a half-hour outlining techniques for building a short, squat pipe bomb comprised mostly of cap ends.

There was a kind of excitement that ran through the group that afternoon, a product of the danger lurking behind what they were learning. It was all preparation for the eventuality of the United Nations invasion, the conflict they all were certain was coming.

When Kirk was done, "Rock" spoke up. Everyone knew Rock as the young, bearded ex-skinhead who was in the military-surplus business and was providing the money for the bombs to be built. He was kind of quiet-spoken, but everyone trusted him, and some were hoping he'd move up as a leader for the group -- something the militiamen had been lacking lately.

Rock, excited like the rest of the group, said it was his turn now to show the group his own special skill: how to get out of handcuffs without a key. The militiamen's eyes lit up. Now, that was a skill worth having.

Rock pulled out a boxful of handcuffs and handed a pair out to everybody. When everyone had one cuff clipped onto one arm, Rock went around the room and clipped the second one behind each of the students' backs.

Then he stepped to the front of the class and gave the group its final lesson -- namely, that they'd been had.

"You are all under arrest," Rock announced, holding up his FBI badge. He walked over to the warehouse's single door and opened it, and in walked a cluster of more FBI agents, some with guns drawn. The militiamen were all too stunned to resist. Classtime, once again, was over.

German, as this instance demonstrated, was also rather inventive in coming up with ways to arrest his subjects with a minimum of risk. He was also, as anyone who worked with him would eagerly inform you, a real "straight shooter" when it came to his work, someone scrupulous about avoiding entrapment but skilled at drawing real threats out of the woodwork.

Unfortunately, straight shooters seem not a welcome commodity under the current regime, as the NYT story goes on to explain:
Mr. German, in his letter to lawmakers, cited "a continuing failure in the F.B.I.'s counterterrorism program," which he said was "not the result of a lack of intelligence, but a lack of action."

Officials said Mr. German also complained internally about a second case in the Portland, Ore., area in 2002 in which he said he was blocked from going undercover to pursue a domestic terrorism lead. That case was also thought to center on a militia group suspected of plotting violence.

In the Tampa case, officials said Mr. German complained that F.B.I. officials had mishandled evidence concerning a suspected domestic terrorist group and failed to act for months on his request in early 2002 to conduct an undercover operation. That failure, he said, allowed the investigation to "die on the vine."

While Mr. German would not confirm the location of the investigation, he said in an interview at the office of his Washington lawyer, Lynne Bernabei, that his problems intensified after he complained about the management of the case in September 2002. He said F.B.I. officials whom he would not name backdated documents in the case, falsified evidence and falsely discredited witnesses in an apparent effort to justify their approach to the investigation. He cited institutional inertia, even after Sept. 11.

"Trying to get approval for an operation like this is a bureaucratic nightmare at the F.B.I.," he said.

Mr. German said that beginning in late 2002, he took his concerns to his supervisors at the F.B.I. and to officials at headquarters in Washington, including Mr. Mueller himself, in an e-mail message that he said went unanswered. He also went to the Justice Department's inspector general and, frustrated by what he saw as a languishing investigation, brought his concerns this spring to several members of Congress and the Sept. 11 commission.

In the meantime, Mr. German said, his career at the F.B.I. stalled, despite what he said was an "unblemished" record and an award for his work in the Los Angeles skinhead case.

Soon after raising his complaints about the 2002 terrorism investigation, he was removed from the case. And, he said, F.B.I. officials wrongly accused him of conducting unauthorized travel, stopped using him to train agents in "proactive techniques" and shut him out of important domestic terrorism assignments.

German's case is only the latest piece in a clearly emerging portrait of an administration once again so enamored of its "official story" that it fails to respond adequately to a serious threat and creates a culture in which information about such threats is officially suppressed.

There's probably nothing more disturbing than realizing that the people who are supposed to be making us safe are more preoccupied with playing political games.

This is the administration that now wants us to believe that, once again, international terrorists are planning to attack financial institutions? Why should we believe them?

And the fact that it's increasingly difficult to do so is a truly terrifying thought.

[Cross-posted at The American Street.]

No comments: