Initially, the FBI targeted the TLI using an informant named Vince Reed, a Vietnam veteran who had successfully infiltrated the Hell's Angels on an earlier assignment. An undercover agent worked with Reed, posing as his gun dealer to strengthen his cover.
Reed reported hearing Beam's TLI friends talk about "The Second Order," a newly revamped group that would stockpile money and weapons to fight a revolution against the federal government.
The FBI wanted to know more. To enhance Reed's status and open a new channel of intelligence, an undercover operation was proposed.
There are two kinds of FBI undercover operations, known as Group I and Group II UCOs. Group II UCOs are used in relatively informal ways and require less oversight, but they also receive less funding and administrative support. Reed's "gun dealer" worked under the Group II heading, since he did not require substantial backup or extraordinary means to pull off his cover story.
FBI agents in Austin wanted to enhance the mix with a Group I operation, a more ambitious undertaking that would be eligible for considerably more funding and support but had to be predicated on a specific criminal act or threat and was subject to additional supervision.
FBI records on the TLI offered a plethora of suspected crimes, including the stockpiling of explosives for an anticipated war against the government. But in the end, none of the leads on the group resulted in prosecution.
To justify the PATCON operation, the strongest provocation was selected. An informant, likely Reed, had reported that TLI associates had discussed the possibility of killing two Austin-based FBI agents. They had done surveillance and collected information about where the agents lived and their daily routines.
That threat became the primary criminal predicate for PATCON. But it soon became clear that the suspects weren't planning to act any time soon, according to one of the targeted agents. When pressed by FBI sources, the suspects said the killings would take place only after the U.S. government had been overthrown.
Within months, the PATCON status reports conceded that the planned assassinations were "not as imminent as originally feared" and had been referenced only in "vague fashion" since the operation began. But it was enough to keep the operation going. A headquarters review said PATCON was "well focused" and had "not expanded beyond the intent of the authorization."
The operation's intent, secondary to the threats on paper at least, was to broadly collect intelligence on the Patriot movement's members and activities, according to records of the investigation and former FBI agents who worked on the case.
Three Patriot groups were directly targeted by PATCON -- TLI, an Alabama organization called Civilian Material Assistance, and the Tennessee-based American Pistol and Rifle Association.
Half the targeted TLI "members" did not actually belong to the militia, according to former members and associates of the group. FBI agents said the targets were selected because of their relationship to Beam, who was seen as a gateway to the Idaho-based Aryan Nations, one of the nation's largest and most well-established white nationalist groups.
PATCON operatives rented an Austin-area safe house wired for audio and video, which they occupied with the informant Vince Reed, hoping to catch Beam and others saying something incriminating on tape, according to agents who worked with Reed.
The safe house surveillance didn't produce results, but Reed eventually won an introduction to Richard Butler, the influential head of the Aryan Nations, who along with Beam had been associated with The Order. Reed then relocated to the group's Idaho headquarters and eventually rose to a senior position in the organization, reporting to the FBI all the while.