Hollaway said McVeigh spoke only in generalities during the call, but that he said the Waco lawsuit would have no effect and that the government needed a message it could understand.
Strassmeir's friend, Dennis Mahon, would go on to be a well-known figure in white supremacist circles and was convicted in February for the 2004 mail bombing of a state diversity official in Arizona. After his arrest in 2009, Mahon told his cellmate that he was "the number three anonymous person in the Oklahoma City bombing investigation." Mahon's sentencing has been set for May 22, 2012.
In the days and months after the bombing, it was all too easy to fit McVeigh into the narrative of the lone wolf, a solitary figure who took it upon himself to redress injustices he uniquely perceived in a manner that shattered the boundaries of collective morality. But then, as now, the label of lone wolf misleads more than it informs.
Journalists continue to investigate the possibility that McVeigh had unknown accomplices in the Oklahoma City bombing, but the evidence remains inconclusive. What is increasingly clear, however, is that his path intersected with people and organizations that had long been under scrutiny by the FBI.
Despite the fact that PATCON was set up as an intelligence-gathering operation, no evidence has emerged to date that information from the operation came into play during the bombing investigation, despite the links between some of McVeigh's contacts and the organizations targeted.
The dilemmas of PATCON point toward current debates over the use of infiltration, particularly in cases such as the NYPD's monitoring of Muslim communities in New York, investigations predicated on the need to collect intelligence rather than build prosecutions on specific criminal activities. The value of the intelligence collected by PATCON is unclear in the final analysis. The only PATCON targets ever prosecuted were already under investigation by the Army, and none of the specific terrorist plots alleged in the FBI's records ever came to fruition. Meanwhile, the perpetrator of the worst act of right-wing violence in U.S. history was in contact with several targets of the FBI's investigation but apparently flew under the radar.
While there is obvious value in collecting information about extremist activity, it must be weighed against fiscal and social costs incurred, as well as the constitutional implications of targeting groups with strong political or religious components. In the case of the Patriots, the movement's worldview is predicated on government persecution. The use of aggressive infiltration tactics -- not just in PATCON -- may have helped legitimize beliefs that some Patriots used to justify violence. At the same time, however, the story of PATCON raises the opposite question: If the investigation had been even more aggressive, might the FBI have detected McVeigh before he carried out his attack?
There are obviously fundamental differences between targeting the radical fringe Patriot movement and targeting the mainstream Muslim community. Targeting all Muslims for infiltration is akin to targeting all white Americans to gain intelligence on supremacists. And the social consequences of fomenting paranoia and mistrust of government in overwhelmingly law-abiding communities are different than within a movement that fundamentally presumes government malfeasance.
A forthcoming report from the New American Foundation on PATCON examines the operation in considerably more detail, with an expanded look at the suspected activities of the targeted groups, as well as difficult questions raised by the investigation itself.
The issue of how the government uses infiltration will continue to be hotly debated. By looking at the lessons of the past, we can start to craft the right questions for the future.