Domestic Terrorism: The Threat From Within
Monday, June 6, 2005; 1:00 PM
The FBI has long maintained that Timothy McVeigh , who was executed in 2001 for the Oklahoma City bombing that claimed 168 lives a decade ago, was the prototypical "lone wolf" terrorist. Other high-profile acts of domestic terrorism have also been labeled the work of people working alone. But in an article in Sunday's Outlook section, Mike German, a former FBI agent who specialized in domestic counter-terrorism, says that a wider conspiracy is behind these acts of violence. He points to an array of extremist, white supremacist and religious-inspired fanatic groups and says they share responsibility for people like McVeigh by encouraging, inspiring and sometimes training them. He says: "'Lone extremism' is not a phenomenon; it's a technique, a ruse designed to subvert the criminal justice system." And he urges the Justice Department to use civil suits to disrupt these extremist groups.
Former FBI agent Mike German was online to discuss domestic terrorism and his Sunday Outlook article, Behind the Lone Terrorist, a Pack Mentality.
A transcript follows.
Arlington, Va.: Mike, what are the potential similarities and differences between the resources (training, technology, etc.) that the FBI and other law enforcement agencies need to track and monitor the kinds of groups that you describe in your article, and the resources needed to track and monitor potential al-Qaeda cells in the country?
Mike German: I think the problem is a lack of institutional knowledge about how these groups operate, and too much routine turnover in FBI Headquarters to build it. Heaquarters supervisors turn over after about only 15 months in a particular job. That's not long enough to learn about the terrorism problem- domestic or international- and develop effective strategies to counter it.
Silver Spring, Md.: It seems pretty clear that President Bush, at this time 4 years ago, was ignoring the international terrorism threat when he could have been doing something to possibly prevent 9/11. Was there any similar inattentiveness on the part of the Clinton administration before Oklahoma City? Were there any missed warning signs, and are we any better prepared now?
Mike German: Yes. And like the 9/11 failures, there were many reasons, some of which still exist today. Domestic terrorism investigations are regulated by Attorney General Guidelines meant to prevent abusive investigations into unpopular groups. The AG Guidelines required the FBI to initiate investigations of domestic groups only when there is a reasonable indication of criminality. As a criminal investigator this was my focus anyway, but FBI management often overstated the amount of evidence needed to find a "reasonable indication" of criminality and stymied investigations unnecessarily.
Domestic Terrorists are also often underestimated. Their beliefs are so unusual and abhorrent that people mistakenly believe they are stupid, which they are not. They are very organized and very dangerous. Besides, it doesn't take a genius to make a bomb. Again, there's a lack of good intelligence about what these groups are all about.
Alexandria, Va.: We are beginning to live in a world that harkens back to the '60's, where labels abound and those labels quickly lose significance. Terrorists; extremists; moderates; blues and reds; and the list goes on...
My question is this: Does the FBI and other similar organizations have clear definitions of the terms terrorism or extremism ~ and other similar terms? For example, there is a dramatic difference between "pro-lifers" and "anti-abortionists"; similarly, there is a dramatic difference between "pro-choice" and "pro-abortionists". There are some of all of these types in our society ~ including pro-abortionists, who feel that certain types of people should not proliferate...
This is, frankly, getting very confusing for those of us trying to understand issues of morality and ethics which are plagued with comparisons, for example, between terrorists and freedom fighters. Does this all come down to "one person's trash is another person's treasure"?
Mike German: I agree with you and I'm afraid our desire to turn the FBI into a domestic intelligence collecting agency will turn out to be a mistake. As a criminal investigator I didn't concern myself with what a particular group thought or said, but rather I concerned myself with the criminal activity they were involved in, and focused my efforts on gathering evidence of criminal acts. COINTELPRO demonstrated how poorly the government restricts itself when it is sure no one will find out what it's doing. My cases were prosecuted in public trials, for all to judge whether the investigation was appropriate.
Chicago, Ill.: Mike, What kind if numbers are there estimated to be when it comes to 'trained' potential terrorists out there? McVeigh had military training, but the most common nightmare-Driven by 'Rambo' movies, I guess-is that some ex-Green Beret/Navy Seal might have extremist tendencies. It might not go over well with the ACLU, but are such folks spied on? Thanks!
Mike German: Numbers are hard to come by because these are clandestine groups, so most of what they do is secretive. Many people in the movement have military training, and there are a lot of publicly available training materials for terrorists. Especially online. A large part of what these groups do on a day-to-day basis is to train each other, either based on their own experience or these materials. I don't believe the government needs to be spying on these groups. The FBI should be conducting well predicated, proactive criminal investigations like mine. The focus needs to be on the real criminals, not just people whose message we don't like.
Washington, D.C.: The government's sole current interest in "domestic terrorism" is in suppressing political dissent by environmental and animal-protection advocates, not one of whom has ever killed anybody. Meanwhile, the government is completely ignoring the numerous right-wing groups which engage in assault, attempted murders, and mass murders with frequency. The government simply lacks any credibility of any kind on the issue of "domestic terrorism."
Mike German: I think it's important to keep the focus on criminality rather than ideology. We all have a first amendment right to speak out, but we don't have a right to force people to listen. Terrorism, whatever the ideology, is about forcing people to listen to your message. There are plenty of legitimate ways for people in this country to get their message out, but violence- for whatever cause- is not one of them.
Virginia: Not really a question, just a comment. I work in trying to crack down on anti-tax resisters, which are one of the most common ways people first get involved with the white supremacist movement. I can say without hesitation that my agency (the IRS) is unable to see the forest for the trees in dealing with these people and the problems that they create. I agree that a national strategy to deal with this, but there isn't anything in the pipeline right now that should give me hope? Like you said, the solution is not going after the needles, but the needle manufactures, but all I ever do is go after the needles, and hear the same names of where they got the ideas from in the first place who we're NOT going after.
Mike German: I shared your frustration and part of the reason I left the FBI was to start getting the message out to the public and to the Congress. But we can't all leave- so please stay and keep doing the best you can.
Philadelphia, Pa.: I recall the paramilitary movement, which was (still is?) prevalent in Pennsylvania. Organizations would provide military type training which was advertised for people who wanted to play soldier, but there was also a strong theme of learning how to arm against the coming counterculture with strong hints of the coming religious war, racial war, protecting yourself against the government taking away your guns, etc. From your observation, who is organizing these paramilitary groups and do they consciously hope to foster soldiers who may take the racial/class warfare struggle on a military-type basis on their own?
Mike German: I believe there are radical elements in most political and social groups, whether they are anti-abortion, pro-gun, anti-tax, pro-vegan, whatever. That's the problem with an intelligence-based approach- we spend too much on learning everything there is to know about the groups without focusing on the criminals within them. Criminal investigations can be proactive, and focus all of the resources on the real threat, rather than on others in the group who are not a threat.
Lawrence, Mass.: In Jayna Davis' book, "The Third Terrorist", she claims that the Oklahoma City bombing was the work of Iraqi agents along with McVeigh. Is this true? And if it is, why the cover-up?
Mike German: I'm sorry to say I did not read Jayna Davis's book, although I have read a lot about it and am familiar with what she says. I also did not work on the McVeigh case so I have no first-hand knowledge of the investigation. One of the interesting things about being a criminal investigator was discovering how often there were seemingly impossible coincidences uncovered during an investigation. Whether the coincidental facts mean anything to the investigation requires a lot of hard work and objectivity. Sometimes a coincidental fact can lead an investigation down the wrong path, which takes time away from the proper investigation, but you have to go down that path to find out whether it's a coincidence or not. A lack of objectivity often prevents us from going down that path in the first place. But a lack of objectivity can also prevent us from realizing we're on the wrong path when we do go down it. I don't believe there's a cover-up, just a disagreement over the meaning of different facts. There should be more objective investigation into what Jayna has uncovered.
Virginia: The MilitiaWatch of ADL and the Southern Poverty Center both have an extensive lists of groups. What do you think of their efforts?
Mike German: I think both of these groups do amazing work. They are a tremendous resource to law enforcement counter-terrorism efforts.
Virginia: Can you tell us of your background?
Mike German: I joined the FBI immediately after graduating from Law School and I was an agent for sixteen years.
Chesapeake Beach, Md.: Freedom Fighter, Terrorist, Tree hugger, Environmentalist....yada yada...
Has the FBI a specific working definition that they use that "elevates" a potential threat into the sphere of "counter terrorism"? Or is it only when violence ensues (or is likely to ensue) that someone becomes a terrorist?
Mike German: I think you point out a real problem that clouds every discussion of terrorism. "Terrorist" is always what we call the other guy. The FBI definition of terrorism refers to the "criminal" use of violence or threat of violence, and I think that's an effective definition for the FBI because it is essentially a crime-fighting organization. But when we start calling all of our enemies "terrorists" and granting our government special powers to go after "terrorists" we are on a slippery slope(especially if the government is allowed to exercise these powers in secret).
Somerville, N.J.: I get annoyed often when I read details in newspapers, for example about nuclear waste, that I think would be helpful to someone who is inclined to be a terrorist.
Do you also have this reaction, does the FBI reach out to the media about this and is there a FBI site where I might email examples?
Mike German: It's definitely a difficult balance. Having information available to the public is necessary in a democracy. It might be helpful for a terrorist to know that nuclear waste is being hidden in your town, but if the press is silenced you wouldn't know it was hidden in your town either. I'd rather know.
Los Angeles, Calif.: Hello Mr. German, and thanks for taking our questions.
It's difficult for me to see these groups as very serious threats. Obviously, the Oklahoma bombing was horrible, but domestic terrorism in the nation seems extremely rare these days.
Why should I be so concerned?
Mike German: Actually if you talked to experts most would tell you that the numbers of people joining domestic extremist groups are growing. Again it's hard to tell because these are clandestine groups, but the reality is that it's not hard to make a very destructive bomb, like Tim McVeigh did. There are a lot of threats out there but the likelihood of being a victim of a domestic terrorist are still greater than being a victim of an international terrorist. Right-wing groups are very active- but the violence they do is not always characterized as terrorism.
Washington, D.C.: Given the growth of bio companies and hospitals the last 10 years and the access by more people to the components that might make up a bioterror weapon, do you feel that enough preventive measures like background checking and access protocols are being conducted?
Mike German: The problem is there are so many vulnerabilities in an open society. Richard Reid snuck a bomb in his shoe and now we all have to take our shoes off every time we get on a plane. If he had hidden it in his hat, hats would be banned but nobody would ask about your shoes. That's why I think we have to focus our investigations on the bad guys within these groups rather than trying to investigate everyone who drives a truck for a living.
Arlington, Va.: To the guy looking for definitions - here are the meta-definitions
Terrorism is a tactic. Terror is a state of mind.
You can't defeat or win a 'war' on either, at least in the conventional sense of those words.
Mike German: You're right. And words are most important because terrorism is all about the message. Al Qaeda wanted a "holy war" and we responded with a "Global War on Terrorism." We gave them what they wanted and elevated them in status.
Mike German: Thanks everyone.
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