We speak with Mike German, an ex-FBI agent who resigned from the agency last year in protest of what he saw as continuing failures in the FBI counter terrorism program. German had worked for years going under cover to infiltrate domestic terrorist organizations like white supremacist skinhead groups and anti-government militias. [includes rush transcript]
While terrorism in the U.S has been synonymous with Al Qaeda, for most of this country’s history, domestic white supremacist organizations like the Klu Klux Klan were the greatest terrorism threat. Some believe they still may be today. Today, In Mississippi, the trial begins of Edgar Ray Killen in connection to the murder of three civil rights workers 41 years ago. Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney — were shot dead allegedly by the Ku Klux Klan. And in Washington, the Senate is scheduled to vote today on a resolution to apologize for its failure to enact anti-lynching legislation. An estimated 4,700 people — mostly African-Americans — were lynched between 1882 and 1968.
Another whistleblower just took on the FBI’s approach to domestic terrorism. Mike German worked for the agency for more than 15 years and quit last year. On June 5th, he wrote an editorial in the Washington Post advocating that law enforcement pay more attention to organizations that produce so-called lone wolf extremists like Timothy McVeigh who was executed for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and Eric Rudolph who planted bombs at the Atlanta Olympics, abortion clinics and a gay nightclub. German writes that “lone extremists pose a challenge for law enforcement because they are difficult to predict. It’s like searching every haystack for a needle. Perhaps we’d have better luck if we paid more attention to the needle factories.”
- Mike German, ex-FBI agent who resigned from the agency last year in protest of what he saw as continuing failures in the FBI counter terrorism program. German had worked for years going under cover to infiltrate domestic terrorist organizations like white supremacist skinhead groups and anti-government militias.
AMY GOODMAN: Today, we’re joined by an ex-F.B.I. agent, Mike German, a whistleblower. He resigned from the agency last year in protest of what he saw as continuing failures in the F.B.I. counterterrorism program. German had worked for years going undercover to infiltrate domestic terrorist organizations like white supremacist skinhead groups and anti-government militias. On June 5, he wrote an editorial in The Washington Post advocating law enforcement pay more attention to groups that produce so-called lone wolf extremists like Timothy McVeigh, executed for the Oklahoma City bombing, and Eric Rudolph who planted the bombs at the Atlanta Olympics and women’s health clinics, a gay night club, as well. German writes, (quote), “Lone extremists pose a challenge for law enforcement because they’re difficult to predict. It’s like searching every haystack for a needle. Perhaps we’d have better luck if we paid more attention to the needle factories.” He joins us now in our D.C. studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!
MIKE GERMAN: Thank you, Amy. How are you?
AMY GOODMAN: It’s very good to have you with us. Well, can you talk first about why you quit and what you see as the great domestic threats today, terroristic threats in this country?
MIKE GERMAN: Well, I was — had been involved in counterterrorism operations for about a dozen years. And after 9/11, of course, the public became aware of how dysfunctional the counterterrorism program was, but there were problems that I knew about for years, so when things weren’t changing and the F.B.I. wasn’t fixing the internal problems that were causing the breakdowns in communication that actually led to 9/11, if you read the 9/11 Commission Report, I felt it was my obligation to come forward and report that there were continuing failures.
AMY GOODMAN: Mike German, can you talk specifically about what you wanted changed?
MIKE GERMAN: Well, I was involved in specific investigations, and I’m not allowed to talk about those investigations, particularly, but basically, if you look at the 9/11 Commission Report, kind of the diversion was that it was a problem of intelligence, but it really wasn’t a problem of intelligence. You had agents in Phoenix who gathered the intelligence, who were aware of one portion of the plot. You had agents in Minneapolis who were aware of another portion of the plot. You had agents in New York who were aware of another portion of the plot. And they all wanted to continue their investigation. The agents on the street are doing their job, they’re collecting the information. It’s when they report that information to headquarters and request authority to continue their investigation, and that’s where the breakdown was. And basically, that was happening in my post-9/11 cases is that that same mid-level bureaucracy was hampering counterterrorism efforts. So that’s why I reported it to Congress.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the groups that you think need to be watched in this country? And if you can give us a thumbnail sketch of the domestic terrorism attacks most famous one, of course, Oklahoma City bombing, 1995, Timothy McVeigh.
MIKE GERMAN: Right. Basically 19 — that was actually in 1995, Timothy McVeigh’s bombing in Oklahoma City. And, you know, what that was was their demonstration of the abilities that they had, and clearly, they can do a lot damage in this country. Any extremist group can do damage. And I think that a lot of the problem right now is we’re in this kind of area where we’re categorizing who’s the greater threat. Well, to me, the guy with the bomb today is the greatest threat, and whether he is a white supremacist terrorist, an Islamic terrorist or an eco-terrorist doesn’t really matter to me. My job as a criminal investigator out on the street is to try to stop the threat that’s there today. And if we do this sort of ranking where we’re only going to pay attention to eco-terrorists because they’re the number one threat or Islamic terrorists because they’re the bigger threat, we’re probably going to drop the ball in one of the other areas. So I think that the mission is let the agents on the street find out what’s happening, but we have to fix that mid-level management area so we can manage the information that they’re providing.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you infiltrate a group? Can you talk about your — what you can talk about, your own history?
MIKE GERMAN: Well, I was involved in a case in Los Angeles in 1992, and in that case, there was a cooperating witness that introduced me into the group. And then I was involved in a second case in northwest Washington in 1996, and that also involved a different cooperating witness, but it was introductions into the group through public citizens, citizens who saw a problem and wanted to help law enforcement protect the community. And once they introduced me in, then it was up to me to try to figure out what — who the criminals were within the group and what the criminal activity was, and gather evidence of that criminal activity.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk more specifically, like Los Angeles, what exactly what that group was doing?
MIKE GERMAN: Well, in Los Angeles there were actually a number of different groups that we had had gotten into, and they were white supremacist groups. Los Angeles in 1992, of course, the community was suffering after — the aftermath of the racial unrest following the Rodney King police beating, so there was a lot of racial animosity in the city. And the white supremacist groups were attempting to take advantage of that situation to spark a race war. So they were preparing for the race war by manufacturing machine guns and explosives, and one of the cells that we got into was actually already involved in a bombing campaign, and we were able to solve those bombings and recover more explosive devices and stop ongoing conspiracies to bomb synagogues and churches that were attended prominently by African Americans.
AMY GOODMAN: Looking at the piece that you did in The Washington Post, “Behind the Lone Terrorist, a Pack Mentality,” you talk about every once in a while, a follower of these movements bursts violently into our world with deadly consequences. McVeigh, Eric Rudolph, Buford Furrow, Jr., Paul Hill, to name just a few, all convicted murderers, identified as lone extremists, the most difficult terrorists to stop, because they act independently from any organization. Or do they? You write, “Tim McVeigh seemed able to find a militia meeting wherever he went. He was linked to militia groups in Arizona and Michigan, white supremacist groups in Oklahoma and Missouri, and at gun shows he sold copies of The Turner Diaries, the racist novel written by the founder of a neo-Nazi organization. No one finds such groups by accident.” You talk about Eric Rudolph who planted the bombs at the Atlanta Olympics, two abortion clinics, gay nightclub, grew up in the Christian Identity Movement, which identifies whites as God’s chosen people and encourages the faithful to follow the Biblical example of Phineas, by becoming instruments of God’s vengeance. Aryan Nations, formerly of Hayden Lake, Idaho, was the center of Christian Identity thought. Not incidentally, Buford Furrow worked there as a security guard before going on a shooting rampage at a Jewish day care center in Southern California. And you talk about Paul Hill, wrote of the need to take Phineas actions to prevent abortions and was so well known that the news media used to — used him to speak in support of Michael Griffin’s killing of abortion doctor, David Gunn, that Hill later shot an abortion provider himself should have surprised no one. Give us the landscape of these groups. They’re well known.
MIKE GERMAN: Sure, they’re well known. And they’re very well organized, and they’re very smart. They understand criminal conspiracy laws. They understand the First Amendment. And they take advantage of those in training their operatives to go out and do these activities. And the point I was trying to make is — is that we can’t look at these as isolated instances. It would be as if we were investigating the mafia and looking at every mafia hitman as a lone assassin and not looking at the underlying organization that was producing these murders, you know. And these people are careful, the leadership are careful about separating themselves from the actual criminal conspiracy, you know. But they do set the motive. They set the method that’s used, and I believe that makes them part of the conspiracy. Now, I’m not saying necessarily you can make a criminal case against them, but all I’m saying is if we’re — if our number one priority is to prevent acts of terrorism, we have to pay attention to these needle factories, because that’s what they’re producing is these lone extremist terrorists. And it’s not just random violence that occurs once in a while, it’s an organized pattern of activity.
AMY GOODMAN: I remember during President Bush, the first’s presidency, Planned Parenthood trying to get the administration to talk about the whole movement of burning, bombing, attacking women’s health clinics as a conspiracy, because the same kinds of things were happening around the country, not to mention the targeting of women’s health professionals, and doctors who performed abortions. They could hardly get an audience with the Justice Department at the time, and the administration was adamant about not talking about conspiracy of these groups. What is the significance of this?
MIKE GERMAN: Well, I think the problem is if you blind yourself to the conspiracy, then the chances of them being successful in their next act of lone extremist terrorism is more likely. So, you know, again I’m not saying that we could necessarily take these leaders into court and convict them, because the whole purpose of their methodology is to separate themselves from the actual criminal activity, but what I’m saying is if we don’t pay attention to those leaders, you’re going to insure that the next group is successful, just as if we were only investigating the mafia one murder at a time and not looking at the underlying organization. And frankly, you know, these groups, like the Ku Klux Klan and Aryan Nations, have rich criminal histories just as deep as the Italian mafia does, yet, you know, we tend to give them a political status that I don’t think is necessarily deserved.
Now, one thing to keep in mind, there are political groups within this movement. It’s a huge community. Like any community, there’s a division of labor, and these — you know, there are completely law-abiding people within these groups, and as a criminal investigator, when I went undercover, one of my — one of the things that I had to do was separate those two out, because there are people who have very strong white supremacist beliefs but would never, ever engage in violence. And my role as a criminal investigator, I was there to gather evidence of criminal activity. So I had no interest in talking to those people. I had to try to find who were the criminals. And I mean, that’s the part — the hard part about law enforcement in a democratic society, but it’s something that has to be done. And, you know, in my cases, it was done very effectively and, you know, I believe the F.B.I. should have replicated those cases more than they did.
AMY GOODMAN: You write in your piece in The Washington Post of last week, that just six weeks ago, self-avowed white supremacist, Sean Gillespie, was convicted of firebombing an Oklahoma City synagogue. According to a CNN report, Gillespie said he once had been a member of the white supremacist group, Aryan Nations. He later left the group. At the time of his arrest, he told authorities he was a racist skinhead acting on his own. But before the attack, he videotaped himself stating, “I will film it for your viewing enjoyment, my kindred white power.” If he’s all alone, who are his “kindred”? “Neo-Nazi ideology is also a leading influence in rising school violence,” you write. “The March 21 shooting at Minnesota’s Red Lake High School was carried out by a Native American teen who praised Adolf Hitler, used the name 'Native Nazi' in internet chat rooms, and the shooters at Colorado’s Columbine High School reportedly greeted each other with Nazi salutes and chose Hitler’s birthday as the date of their attack. But you rarely hear these incidents described as acts of domestic terrorism.” Who defines whether it’s terrorism or not?
MIKE GERMAN: Well, that’s a big part of the problem, and you know, any time they come up with numbers of terrorist attacks, you have got to realize that there’s a reporting problem there. You know, a white man beats a black man on the street, is that just a random assault or is that a hate crime, or is that an act of domestic terrorism, or is it nothing? Does it not get reported at all? So, any time that the government talks about numbers of terrorism attacks, what they’re talking about is the number of attacks that were reported as acts of terrorism. And like the school violence, sometimes it’s not even thought of as domestic terrorism, but if neo-Nazi influence is influencing these kids to act out violently, I would argue that that’s part of the terrorist movement, and that that, by paying attention to the neo-Nazi groups that are producing that literature and those websites, we might have a better idea of who might be the next lone extremist, so that we can stop him.
AMY GOODMAN: With people like Paul Hill, the abortion doctor killer, the whole violent attack on women’s health movement, is it also that the administration with a very anti-choice point of view, brings politics into defining who they will go after and who they don’t? Is that fair to say?
MIKE GERMAN: No, I really don’t think so. In my experience, the agents on the street have really never let politics get involved, really are very apolitical.
AMY GOODMAN: Not the agents on the street, but at the top.
MIKE GERMAN: Except that that’s who actually does the investigation. So, you know, I mean, kind of one of the misnomers about all this talk of reforming the government for counterterrorism, it’s not as if the director could say, 'Hey, agent in Des Moines, find me a domestic terrorist case today.' You know, he can only deal with what’s on the street in front of him. So, cases actually get reported up from the street. And, you know, the agents on the street are the ones that are actually making the cases, and where — like what I said before, where it breaks down is when it gets through management. And I don’t believe politics really plays a point in that. I — you know, whether politics plays a point in these kind of rankings of what terrorist groups are most dangerous right now, that very well may be, but my whole point is that you can’t really rank these guys based on their ideology. You have to worry about who has got the bomb today.
AMY GOODMAN: Where are the white militia groups centered today in this country, and how hard is it to infiltrate?
MIKE GERMAN: You know, they’re everywhere. I think that one of the big misperceptions about these groups is that they’re only out West. They’re only up in the Northwest. You know, once you’re kind of attuned to their language and their codes and their symbols, I see that kind of stuff everywhere I go. I have, you know, traveled all over the United States and have been able to find something that gives me an indication that there’s a community there. When a community gets leafleted, typically that’s a sign that there is a group that is at least trying to start operating in that community. And if you, you know, look at these groups, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League, they keep track of this kind of information, you will see that they’re spread out everywhere, and keep in mind that they’re clandestine groups, so they do their best to hide. So of the ones we know about, there’s probably — you know, that’s probably just the tip of the iceberg. There’s probably, you know, two or three times that many that nobody has ever heard of. When I was working undercover in the Los Angeles case, the one group that we found that was actually involved in the bombing campaign, nobody even knew about them. You know, the Huntington Beach Police Department had done a very nice job helping — assisting us in that case, in identifying some of these young people, but it was basically a group that was operating completely under the radar.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to former F.B.I. man, Mike German, who quit the F.B.I. in 2004, had been there for 16 years, quit over how the F.B.I. was dealing with domestic terrorism. Do you expect an attack soon in this country?
MIKE GERMAN: An attack from domestic terrorists?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes.
MIKE GERMAN: Or —
AMY GOODMAN: Or, well, no, let’s broaden it to: Do you expect a terrorist attack in this country?
MIKE GERMAN: Of course. I don’t think that, you know, you’re ever going to stop terrorism. You know, and part of the problem is, we use one word to describe very many different things, you know, whether it’s the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, or the D.C. snipers or, you know, organized white supremacist groups and organized foreign terrorist groups. We’re certainly never going to stop terrorism altogether. You know, I think we just have to try to do the best we can to prevent as many acts as we can, and it requires really a lot of proactive work. And I think one of the big problems is after 9/11, there was generated this idea that criminal law enforcement is somehow ineffective in preventing terrorist attacks.
Well, my two cases prove that you could prevent terrorist attacks. I mean, in both of my cases, we actually used criminal law enforcement techniques to prevent acts of terrorism. And unfortunately, the way the intelligence reform has gone has moved from criminal law enforcement to this intelligence model. Well, you know, basically the problem in 9/11 was the American public had no idea how dysfunctional the F.B.I. counterterrorism program had become, but now we’re under this intelligence model, we actually know even less about what the government is doing to protect us from terrorism. You know, there’s less accountability in the F.B.I., and I certainly know that there are problems, and I reported those problems to Congress, but so far, Congress hasn’t been able to even get to the bottom of what I reported to them over a year ago.
So, there’s just no oversight, and those things are really the problems. And until we fix what is internally wrong in the F.B.I., I don’t think it’s going to change. I think that we’re still at great risk. You know, the 9/11 Commission found that the big problems were the F.B.I. had a poor ability to analyze intelligence that was coming in from the street, that they didn’t share information well, and they didn’t have a computerized system to share information, even among agents. And just last week, the 9/11 Commission discourse project came out and told us that — gave us their report card, and it was that the F.B.I. still doesn’t have an analytic capability, it still isn’t sharing information in the intelligence community, and it still doesn’t have a computer system. That’s four years after 9/11.
So, you know, the problem — these are all symptoms of one problem, and the problem is mismanagement within the F.B.I., yet none of the recommendations that of the 9/11 Commission addressed that mismanagement. Former Attorney General Richard Thornburg at the 9/11 discourse project last Monday said that, you know, one of the things that bothered him as he was trying to review information about the F.B.I. is through the course of the time that he was there, every time he went to a meeting, it was a different F.B.I. supervisor he was meeting with, that the turnover among supervisors is so rapid that they really don’t have an opportunity to learn their job before they’re moving to the next one.
AMY GOODMAN: Mike German, last question. That is, the latest report that under pressure from the White House, the F.B.I. has agreed to adopt recommendations of a presidential commission to allow the Director of National Intelligence, John Negroponte, to help choose the powerful new intelligence chief at the F.B.I. The appointment would for the first time in the Bureau’s history give an outsider a significant role in the selection of a high level official in the F.B.I. What do you think about this?
MIKE GERMAN: Well, it’ll depend on who it is and whether he has the ability to force the managers below him to reform their conduct. And you know, I mean, it’s kind of perfume on a pig to keep changing these top people, because I don’t think the top people are the problem.
AMY GOODMAN: Mike German. On that note, I’m going to say thanks very much for joining us. Again, Mike German, with the F.B.I. for more than 15 years, quit last year, did a piece in The Washington Post last week called, “Behind the Lone Terrorist, a Pack Mentality.”