In 1990, the FBI began picking up on rumors about an effort to reconstitute a notorious terrorist-criminal gang known as The Order.
The group's name was taken from the infamous racist 1978 novel The Turner Diaries, which told the story of a fictional cabal carrying out acts of terrorism and eventually overthrowing the U.S. government in a bloody, nihilistic racial purge. The book was an inspiration to a generation of white nationalists, including Timothy McVeigh, whose path to radicalization climaxed in the Oklahoma City bombing 17 years ago Thursday.
During the 1980s, extremists inspired by the book began robbing banks and armored cars, stealing and counterfeiting millions of dollars and distributing some of the money to racist extremist causes. Members of The Order assassinated Jewish talk radio host Alan Berg in 1984, before most of its members were arrested and its leader killed in a standoff. Less than 10 percent of the money stolen by The Order was ever recovered, and investigators feared members of the group who were still at large would use it to further a campaign of terrorism.
To prevent the rise of a "Second Order," FBI undercover agents would become it.
Starting in April 1991, three FBI agents posed as members of an invented racist militia group called the Veterans Aryan Movement. According to their cover story, VAM members robbed armored cars, using the proceeds to buy weapons and support racist extremism. The lead agent was a Vietnam veteran with a background in narcotics, using the alias Dave Rossi.
Code-named PATCON, for "Patriot-conspiracy," the investigation would last more than two years, crossing state and organizational lines in search of intelligence on the so-called Patriot movement, the label applied to a wildly diverse collection of racist, ultra-libertarian, right-wing and/or pro-gun activists and extremists who, over the years, have found common cause in their suspicion and fear of the federal government.
The undercover agents met some of the most infamous names in the movement, but their work never led to a single arrest. When McVeigh walked through the middle of the investigation in 1993, he went unnoticed.
PATCON is history, but it holds lessons for today. Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a series of arrests for homegrown terrorism has put a spotlight on the secretive world of government infiltration, especially in the Muslim community. Some critics have charged that these investigations, in which suspected jihadists are provided with the means and encouragement to carry out terrorist attacks before being arrested, constitute entrapment and set plots in motion that would never have emerged on their own. But these controversial tactics were around long before the FBI was restructured to prioritize terrorism. And Muslims aren't the only targets.
Most undercover operations remain secret, especially if they do not result in prosecutions. PATCON stayed under wraps for nearly 15 years, until it was discovered in Freedom of Information Act requests by the author. The account that follows is based on thousands of pages of FBI records on PATCON and the groups it targeted, as well as interviews with FBI agents who worked on the case, former FBI informants, and members of the targeted groups. The documents and interviews reveal important lessons for the modern use of undercover agents and informants.
PATCON had its origins in the investigation of Louis Beam, an infamous racial ideologue with connections to the original Order. In 1987, the government prosecuted him for sedition in connection with the group's activities, but he was acquitted and subsequently moved to the Austin, Texas, area.
The FBI was keenly interested in Beam's activities and his associates. In 1990, agents in Texas opened an investigation into his activities within the "Texas Light Infantry" (TLI). With branches throughout the Lone Star state, the TLI was a paramilitary militia that styled itself as an emergency backup for the Texas State Guard. Although the case file expansively included the whole organization -- most of which was not racist in nature -- investigators were primarily interested in a handful of Austin-area members and associates tied to Beam.