Leaders of the nation's militia movement told a Senate hearing yesterday that the U.S. government -- and perhaps the members of Congress questioning them -- are engaged in ghastly plots, including launching the nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway and causing tornadoes to disorient heartland America.
But even if the government disbelieves their claims, the militia members warned, it shouldn't ignore their anger -- and the alienation of many Americans.
"People are tired of being terrorized by law enforcement," James Johnson, a militia leader from Columbus, Ohio, told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee. "If a war is waged, these groups plan on winning. . . . If a police officer kicks down my door with no warrant, what am I supposed to do?" He called militias "the civil rights movement of the 1990s. We're not baby killers; we're baby boomers."
In their first-ever appearance before Congress, leaders of some of the nation's militias veered from wild allegation to angry denunciation, from respectfulness at their presence in the U.S. Senate to defensiveness at the government assertion that they are racist fanatics bent on sedition.
The senators, led by Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who chaired the hearing, were alternately patient and testy. Time and again, the questioning turned to the Oklahoma City bombing, whose two suspects attended several militia meetings and are believed to hold the extreme anti-government philosophy of some of the militia movement's more radical elements.
Displaying skills from his time as Philadelphia's district attorney, Specter repeatedly asked Norman Olson, former head of a large Michigan militia, about statements to reporters that he could "understand" a justification for bombing the Oklahoma City federal building on April 19.
"I understand the dynamic of retribution, sir . . . when justice is removed from the equation," replied Olson, wearing his Michigan militia military fatigues with a "commander" shoulder patch.
His voice rising in anger, Olson said, "You're trying to make us out to be something we're not. We're opposed to racism and hatred. We stand against corruption. Many of us are coming to the conclusion you represent corruption and tyranny. . . . There is intelligent life west of the Alleghenies. . . . You're wasting precious time."
"I don't take lightly your comment that I represent corruption," said Specter, who demanded proof of the claim -- but received none.
Testifying in a huge room under a colossal Senate seal, the five militia members -- mostly working-class men who had never previously appeared before Congress -- did not back down in the face of their questioners. It could be said they gave as good as they got -- especially if one believes their accusations that the United States is engaged in diabolical conspiracies.
"The Central Intelligence Agency is the grandest conspirator behind all this government," testified Olson, a retired Air Force sergeant and gun shop owner. "Perhaps its puppeteer strings even reach into the Senate."
Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) asked Olson about an odd theory that caused Olson to leave one Michigan militia and form another: that the U.S. government launched the nerve gas attack on Tokyo's subways that killed six people earlier this year, and that later the United States apparently allowed the Japanese government to bomb the federal building in Oklahoma.
Olson replied that he had 40 pages of documents to back the assertions, gathered from unnamed U.S. operatives who dropped them off at militia-run "places of safety. . . . I believe we'll find collusion between governments" in the bombings, he said.
Robert Fletcher, a leader of the Militia of Montana, said official accounts of how the Oklahoma bombing happened are "baloney" and repeated the widespread militia belief that there was not one but up to three explosions.
Asked about weather-tampering technology he thinks the U.S. government has developed for nefarious purposes, he said, "It's proven and documented it exists." He added that it was used recently to stir up 85 midwestern tornadoes to confuse the citizenry.
Militia of Montana leaders submitted for the hearing record a copy of the Declaration of Independence, with notations alleging all manner of plots, from "covert . . . provocateurs in Los Angeles riots" to "2,500 hit men" hired by Attorney General Janet Reno, secret United Nations military maneuvers in the United States and "every illegal IRS seizure for 20 years."
The militia witnesses said they and most Americans feel so agitated about federal overreaching that violence could result.
"The animosity between the people and the government is frightening," said Ohio militia leader Johnson, one of the movement's few black activists. "This nation is one of the most heavily armed forces on Earth. . . . We're the ones who calm people down."
Michigan militia leader Ken Adams said militias are "a cross-section of Americans, attorneys to doctors to mechanics. . . . We're law-abiding, God-fearing."
But government officials told the hearing that while some militia members are that, others are racist, antisemitic demagogues. Forty-five of the nation's approximately 224 militias have ties to neo-Nazi or other white racist groups, they said. Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said that John Trochmann, the Montana militia's co-founder who also testified, has for years associated with the racist Aryan Nations movement, and that the militia's public literature "uses antisemitic code words like . . . banking elites.' "
Trochmann denied being racist and added, "How can senators . . . question the loyalties of concerned Americans without first cleaning their own house?"
Law enforcement officials also told of militias stalking police officers and plotting to attack them. Assistant FBI Director Robert M. Bryant said two members of an anti-tax Minnesota militia, the Patriots Council, were recently convicted of making an illegal batch of ricin, a toxic derivative of the castor bean, that they planned to use to kill a police officer who had served eviction papers on a colleague. Michigan militia members have researched the locations of offices of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and of the schools attended by agents' children, said Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.). A car carrying three members that was stopped for a traffic violation last year yielded notes showing they had been engaging in "surveillance" of police departments, he said.
Yesterday Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the militia members' appearance at the Specter hearing turned it into "a soapbox for the radical right." He called for more in-depth hearings on militias.
CAPTION: Before hearing, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) stands with Norman Olson of Michigan, whose uniform is decorated with a "commander" patch. Olson alleged the U.S. government launched the gas attack on Tokyo's subways.
CAPTION: Sen. Arlen Specter displays an example of hate literature during hearing. Witness Robert Fletcher of Montana shows his example of a government agent.