1990, the FBI began picking up on rumors about an effort to reconstitute a
notorious terrorist-criminal gang known as The Order.
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.
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.
prevent the rise of a "Second Order," FBI undercover agents would become it.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
FBI wanted to know more. To enhance Reed's status and open a new channel of
intelligence, an undercover operation was proposed.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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
Patriot groups were directly
targeted by PATCON -- TLI, an Alabama organization called Civilian Material
Assistance, and the Tennessee-based American Pistol and Rifle Association.
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.
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
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.
continued its surveillance without him.
threats the FBI chronicled as emanating from the TLI were not insignificant.
For instance, an FBI lab analysis said that remnants of an expertly crafted
pipe bomb were found during a search at a TLI training camp. The search for
more information was understandable, especially given the consequences if an
act of violence were to take place and it was then revealed that the bureau could have
lead after lead failed to uncover evidence that would support an indictment or
even indicate that the plots were making any serious progress. Although the targets
of the operation talked continually about forming The New Order, no one ever
provided specific plans or names of those involved, according to agents working on the case.
have talkers and doers out there, and 99 percent of the people are talkers,"
said one former Patriot informant. Most of the targets of PATCON -- even those
engaged in frighteningly violent rhetoric -- never moved past the talking
greener pastures beckoned. In February 1992, not quite a year into the
operation, the focus of PATCON shifted. The agent posing as Dave Rossi arranged
an introduction to Thomas Posey, the leader of the Alabama group, Civilian
Material Assistance (CMA).
had its origins as an anti-Communist group helping the Contras in the
Nicaraguan civil war. It had murky connections to government through the
Iran-Contra program, and Posey had been called to testify during congressional hearings
on the scandal.
Iran-Contra wilted under public scrutiny, Posey repurposed CMA as a Patriot
militia and began reaching out to like-minded organizations with an eye toward
forging a Patriot alliance, according to former CMA members and FBI documents.
Posey envisoned these ties as a way for disparate groups to work cooperatively
when the time came to overthrow the government.
records indicated that CMA and the TLI were already closely aligned by 1990,
although former members of both groups disputed this in interviews.
envisioned an alliance flexible enough to withstand both ideological
differences revolving around race and religion and the movement's hardwired
paranoia. But a November 1991 meeting, sponsored by CMA to promote the idea,
collapsed in a paroxysm of suspicion over suspected infiltration and
FBI did, in fact, have multiple informants at the meeting. But they escaped
detection in the ensuing free-for-all of accusations and investigation. A full-time
paid informant was also in place with CMA, close to Posey. When Posey met
Rossi for the first time, he brought the informant along to watch his back.
to FBI records of the meeting, Posey offered to sell black market Stinger
missiles to Rossi's fictional Veterans Aryan Movement.
offer was judged credible, partly because of CMA's shadowy connection to the
Contras and partly because Posey was a notorious black market arms dealer,
suspected of having contraband sources on more than one U.S. military base.
budget ballooned by tens of thousands of dollars to purchase the Stingers, but
after repeatedly stalling, Posey eventually claimed they had been sold to
someone else. Instead, he offered to sell Rossi several pairs of Army
goggles were real. The FBI quickly determined they had likely been stolen from
Fort Hood, and Rossi purchased several pairs using money set aside for the
it stopped there. After deliberations recorded in FBI memos and communications,
it was determined that PATCON's intelligence-gathering mission was going so
well that nobody wanted to do anything that might get in the way (like filing
Army's Criminal Investigative Division, investigating the theft from the Fort
Hood angle, soon placed its own undercover agents and informants around Posey.
shifted its focus yet again.
his contacts with Posey, Rossi secured an introduction to John Grady, head
of the Tennessee-based American
Pistol and Rifle Association (APRA), a militant version of the National Rifle Association
that the FBI suspected of training and advising white supremacists and other
extremists. Through multiple
informants and Rossi, the FBI again compiled an alarming list of leads,
including reports that Grady was part of Posey's Patriot alliance and that APRA
had deployed six-man teams around the country to carry out acts of terrorism
and infrastructure sabotage.
from several FBI documents containing these allegations were e-mailed to Grady,
who responded in a telephone interview.
statement that you've shown me is false," Grady said. He disputed the
contention in FBI documents that the APRA was white supremacist in nature and said
he had only a passing acquaintance with Posey.
source with knowledge of the investigation and documentary materials affirmed
some of the allegations found in the case file, but others did not check out.
For instance, FBI records sourced to Rossi indicated that an October 1992
speech by Grady said "a person was better off to take out as many people as
they could than to be arrested and taken to jail," but a videotape of the
speech obtained from a source did not match the description.
the intelligence continued to flow, the criminal investigation again foundered,
failing to produce any evidence on which to base a prosecution.
April 1993, an FBI committee reviewing the investigation of Grady expressed
concern that agents were "only obtaining intelligence and not moving forward
with the criminal investigation." PATCON undercover agents were cautioned to
limit their reporting to criminal activity, rather than "speeches or rhetoric
protected by the First Amendment." In July 1993, FBI headquarters determined
"that insufficient justification exists to justify" continued investigation.
the Grady case and the undercover operation were terminated. Agents were
instructed in unusually strong terms that they "should conduct no further
investigation regarding either [The Order of St. John] or PATCON."
the operation shut down, other complications that had beset PATCON throughout
its history became a closed book, including the involvement of FBI personnel
and investigative targets in the dramatic events that McVeigh would later cite
as motivation for the Oklahoma City bombing.
August 1992, one of the PATCON undercover agents served on a SWAT team assigned
to the standoff at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. The ATF had tried to convince Randy
Weaver, a religious fundamentalist who lived on the
site, to act as an informant against the Aryan Nations. When Weaver refused,
the ATF prosecuted him on a minor weapons charge and began planning to arrest
him at his remote mountain home. U.S. Marshals scouting the site got into a
firefight with Weaver and others living there, resulting in the death of a
marshal and Weaver's 14-year-old son.
the confrontation, the FBI took over the scene and a protracted standoff
ensued, lasting several days. The tense situation erupted when an FBI sniper
opened fire, wounding Weaver and killing his unarmed wife, Vicki, who was
holding their baby in her arms.
Ridge instantly became a signal event for the Patriot movement, which had been predicated
in significant part on the idea that the government would soon crack down on
gun owners, sparking the much-anticipated revolution.
to FBI records, the PATCON agent took rudimentary precautions to avoid
detection -- pulling a coat over his head when he passed through the FBI
roadblock on the way to the scene, and staying at a motel in a less-trafficked
area. But headquarters decided that it was better to err on the side of caution
and pull him out of the undercover operation. His role was never disclosed.
the many enraged by Ruby Ridge was McVeigh, who
was living in his hometown near Buffalo at the time. He heard about the siege
from news media and began seeking more information from Patriot shortwave radio
broadcasts. Years later, McVeigh's defense attorney remembered his client
saying Ruby Ridge was "the defining moment in his life that impelled him to act
against the government."
interests would soon overlap with McVeigh more directly.
the beginning of 1993, McVeigh left the normal workaday world behind and hit the
road, traveling the country and selling military fatigues and copies of The Turner Diaries at a series of gun
shows. His first stop was in Florida, near Fort Lauderdale, where his sister
and her family lived.
a gun show there, where he was selling his merchandise, McVeigh met a colorful
character named Roger Moore. A self-made millionaire, Moore had retired young
and spent his free time traveling and selling ammunition at gun shows under his
own name and a number of aliases -- Bob Miller, Col. Bob Anderson, "Bob from
Arkansas," and simply "Arkansas Bob."
his alias of Bob Miller, Moore had also been involved for years with Posey's CMA,
according to two former members of the group and other supporting evidence.
Moore could not be reached for comment.
a second meeting between the two men in Florida, Moore invited McVeigh to visit
his Arkansas ranch. McVeigh hit the road again, driving west. A few days before
he set out, the ATF botched an effort to raid the compound of the Branch
Davidians, a bizarre cult based in
Waco, Texas. After a massive gunfight, resulting in deaths on both sides, a
standoff ensued and the FBI was brought in to contain the scene.
Branch Davidians, known locally as gun traders, had at least casual connections
to the groups targeted by PATCON. They used one of the same suppliers as the
TLI, and an associate of Posey's had sold them ammunition, according to FBI
the siege unfolded, many Patriots saw the assault as just the kind of nightmare
government crackdown on gun owners they had been predicting.
was particularly hard hit by the events at Waco. Members began discussing
whether to intervene on behalf the Branch Davidians. Posey and other CMA
members also discussed revenge, according to FBI records, proposing to bomb
government buildings and to kill five FBI and ATF agents for every Branch
Davidian who died at Waco, according to FBI records.
forwarded threat reports involving CMA and John Grady's organization to FBI
headquarters and to the agents on the scene at Waco. The precise threats were
redacted from documents released under FOIA. Agents involved in the siege said
they did not recall the leads.
siege dragged on for weeks, and members of various Patriot groups began camping
outside the FBI's perimeter in protest. On March 18, Beam -- one of PATCON's
primary targets -- was arrested after a vocal outburst at the FBI's daily press
briefing. Some of Beam's associates, also targeted by PATCON, inserted
themselves into negotiations between the FBI and the sect.
this volatile mix walked McVeigh, arriving in Waco shortly before Beam's arrest
and camping for a couple of days. After leaving Waco in the second half of
March, McVeigh went to Tulsa and attended another gun show with Moore, the
traveling ammunition salesman. Waco dominated their conversation; in court
testimony later, Moore laconically described McVeigh's attitude at the time as
met two other men in Tulsa. One was Andreas Strassmeir, a German citizen who
had moved to the United States some years earlier. In Texas, Strassmeir had
become close to Beam and other TLI members before moving to Elohim City, a
rural Oklahoma community associated with the white supremacist Christian Identity
movement. McVeigh also met Dennis Mahon, a
friend of Strassmeir and frequent visitor to Elohim City.
Tulsa, McVeigh visited Moore and Anderson for a few days in Arkansas, and then
went to visit another old Army buddy, Terry Nichols, at his home in Michigan. On
April 19, McVeigh and Nichols watched in horror as TV news showed an unfolding disaster in Waco as the
FBI stormed the compound and a fire broke out, resulting in the death of more
than 70 Branch Davidians including children. The sight further hardened
McVeigh's resolve to act against the government. He would carry out his bombing
exactly two years later.
September 1993, McVeigh and Moore met again at a Las Vegas convention hosted by
Soldier of Fortune magazine. The
convention was an annual recruiting stop for CMA, according to multiple
sources. The two men got into a shouting match over Patriot politics, drawing
the attention of security and bystanders.
and several other members of CMA were also in attendance. Although Posey didn't
know it, the government was closing in.
the aftermath of Waco, Posey had grown increasingly bitter, talking more and
more about revenge, according to sources and FBI records.
and other CMA members discussed plans to bomb the FBI office in Birmingham as
well as a plot to raid the Browns Ferry nuclear power plant in Alabama. Posey
believed the plant had an armory stocked with the high-powered weapons he
FBI had heard about the raid idea in 1990, but it went nowhere. After Waco, it
was back on the table. In the months after the end of the siege, Posey
allegedly began crafting a plan to bribe or overwhelm the plant's security
guards and break in using a five-man team.
the plot apparently moving toward fruition, the FBI finally arrested Posey and
several other CMA members, just days after the Soldier of Fortune convention. But after years of infiltration --
including multiple informants and undercover operations by both the FBI and the
Army -- the only charges brought against Posey stemmed from the theft of the
members of CMA and an associate were indicted by a grand jury. Two of the
defendants were convicted, two pleaded guilty, and charges were dismissed against
the two remaining. Posey served only two years in prison and lived quietly
after his release until his death in 2011.
was the only case investigated by PATCON that ever led to a trial, but the
prosecution was based almost exclusively on evidence gathered by the Army's
investigation and by FBI informants not associated with PATCON.
away from the FBI's watchful gaze, McVeigh marched steadily toward
the completion of his own plot. In the days before the Oklahoma City bombing,
McVeigh placed calls to two former members of the Texas Light Infantry.
April 5, 1995, McVeigh called Elohim City, apparently trying to reach
Strassmeir. Strassmeir did not respond to requests for an interview, but he has
repeatedly denied any contact with McVeigh after the 1993 meeting in Tulsa.
April 18, Dave Hollaway, a former member of TLI and a friend of Louis Beam, was
at his workplace, the CAUSE Foundation, when he received a phone call from a
man who did not identify himself but was later determined to be McVeigh.
provided legal support to right-wing and racist groups under the leadership of
Kirk Lyons, Beam's former lawyer and a friend of Strassmeir. Lyons had tried to
represent the Branch Davidians during the siege at Waco and later represented
the families of the deceased Branch Davidians and two survivors in a class-action
lived with Hollaway off and on over the course of about five years in various
places, Hollaway said in an e-mail interview. After the bombing, Hollaway (an
experienced pilot) flew Strassmeir back to his native Germany.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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
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.