When the National Militia Commanders Council opened its second congress earlier this month on a farm at Mountain Springs, a spot in the road about 50 miles northeast of Dallas, Jim Adams, the regional chief of the FBI, was on hand. The representative of the agency responsible for the bloody fiascos of Waco, Ruby Ridge, and the investigation of the Oklahoma City bombing was there--not to arrest the delegates, but as their invited guest.
"The mere presence of a militia is not illegal," Adams explained later. "If there's a problem, we'd like to be able to talk about it. You're better off talking than not talking."
While Adams chatted with the militia leaders beneath a blue-and-white-striped circus tent, armed men stood guard. Two-thirds of them were middle-aged and showing paunch, but others were thin and under 30, dressed in Vietnam-era fatigues. Several carried semi-automatic rifles with stocks of high-impact plastic--after-market, gun-nut modifications to standard weaponry. Almost everybody, it seems, had a 9mm Glock or military Colt .45 holstered on their hips. Adams says that he and an FBI agent who accompanied him weren't packing guns. "But we sure felt well-protected there," he says wryly.
The militia leaders invited the G-men because "it takes a level of fear away from both sides," says Russell Smith, commander of the northern region of the Texas Constitutional Militia, which hosted the three-day affair.
The unprecedented FBI-militia face-to-face (Adams put his arm around Smith's camouflaged shoulder during a private stroll) is symbolic of changes apparently wrought in the militia movement under the shadow of the Oklahoma City bombing. Even before suspect Timothy McVeigh--who has not been tied to any organization--was charged with the crime, FBI people were grilling militiamen about the incident. Before long, to hear Smith and Adams tell it, the two forces were working together to head off potentially explosive situations.
Smith, 41, who says that he owns a T-shirt shop in Richardson and a trophy supply house in Plano, guards his words when talking about his transactions with the FBI. "I can tell you one thing, Oklahoma City wasn't the only thing planned. We got word of another one and we defused it before it could take place," he says. About a month after the April 19 bombing, he claims, the TCM learned of a terrorist action planned by parties apparently unconnected to the Oklahoma blast. With the connivance or cooperation of the FBI, Smith and another TCM leader, Jim O'Connor, began calming the waters.
The FBI's Adams confirms the colonel's veiled report, at least in broad outline. "We have been successful on three or four occasions in working with Smith and Jim O'Connor in defusing situations," he says. "Local police do the same thing all the time on gang outreach operations," he adds.
"I may have a very strong hatred against the federal government right now, but I don't believe in doing anybody harm," Colonel Smith of the militia points out. "Our weapons are for a very last resort."
The National Militia Commanders Council, which drew some 100 delegates from 20 states and perhaps 35 militias to Mountain Springs, hasn't always had quite that outlook--or hasn't stated it as clearly. At its founding conference in South Dakota last summer it adopted a Declaration of Grievance, modeled on warnings that American colonists sent to the British government as events led up to open revolt and the Declaration of Independence.
"We the people do hereby declare that as of this day, July 22, 1995, Congress shall make no further law or regulation abridging, infringing or encroaching upon the second amendment to the united States Constitution [their capitalization]," the militia groups' founding missive says. It went on to list what it termed federal abuses: gun control measures, undeclared wars, sovereignty-ceding treaties, increased federal surveillance of protest organizations. It closed by warning that if federal powers don't halt their supposed encroachments, the signatories might feel "compelled to exercise their RIGHT and DUTY to take up arms..."
But in the months since, the commanders have taken a hard look at statements like that--and blinked. When a delegate from Kentucky asked the conference, "Where do we draw the line?" a militia chieftain from New Mexico answered, "The number one thing that I think that everybody better get through their head is that you'd best don't draw a line in the sand that you're not prepared to defend....Just because you feel that something is wrong, it's not necessarily that you have the capability of defending your position."
"We can't fight an organized thing that the government would throw against us..." added a colonel from Missouri.
While this discussion was taking place, a small, unmarked black helicopter flew low over the militiamen's encampment, perhaps for surveillance or filming. A shoulder-mounted surface-to-air missile could have brought it down, but the militiamen raised only binoculars. If they have SAMs or mortars or any weaponry not available in gun shops, it wasn't in sight. "We're just an infantry, and that's all we can be for awhile," one of their leaders noted. The militiamen let the helicopter go about its business, whatever that was.
Nonetheless, the Kentucky commander pressed his question: "If one arm of this militia is attacked, it's my assumption that we're all going to go into an attack posture. Now you tell me if that's right or wrong thinking."
"I wouldn't," the Missouri leader told him. "...I have to take care of my own territory, I have to cover my own rear end, and I figure, if they jumped one unit, friends, then we've got all the proof in the world...that we weren't conspiracist freaks and kooks."
Proof, of course, is something one presents to courts, critics and the press--by means other than the barrel of a gun.
After the press was ushered out of the meeting early Saturday, an ostensibly secret strategy was proposed: that all of the assembled commanders would go home and order their troops not to buy night vision goggles or Teflon bullets--but to switch long-distance telephone carriers. The leadership explained it had found a company that, through a front group, promised a four percent kickback on receipts. The proceeds, it said, could help defray the expenses of a "rumor-squelching hotline" appropriately numbered 1-800-OUTLAST. Of course, somebody mentioned security concerns, that a joint long-distance carrier could make it that much easier for the government to compile telephone lists and monitor calls. It's hardly a paranoid concern, but nevertheless falls on deaf ears. "You know what, I try to get on three lists a week," one of the group's commanders jibed.
Later during the closed session, two members arose to pass, not the ammunition, but the fax and phone numbers for the White House and the U.S. Congress' switchboard. If an incident like the Ruby Ridge standoff develops, the commanders were advised, it's their duty to "get ahold of the press, get the faxes going, get the phone going."
"What we're going to do is bury Washington--in fax paper," a Midwestern commander declared.
A surprising part of the militias' new realism involves an ideological housecleaning. The commander of a Midwestern militia federation told the group that he'll no longer accept memberships from race-based units. "The first time I see a swastika, the first time I hear the word 'nigger,' the first time I hear the word 'Jew' in a bad way, that's it. They're out, they're done."
To back up an expulsion earlier this year, he boasted, he'd published his charges--on the Internet. The text of the expulsion order, issued by the Tri-State Militia, a largely Midwestern outfit affiliated with the commander groups, concludes with the declaration that "The cause that we all hold so dear requires not only patriotism but mature judgment and racial and religious tolerance."
Tellingly, one of the keynote speakers at the Mountain Springs meet was Alabaman Mike Vanderboegh, a recruiter for a minuscule organization called Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership. It's unclear how many Jews are members of the organization, but the JPFO's message to Jews is that genocide can't be perpetrated upon a well-armed people.
But Vanderboegh, a Presbyterian, took a little different attack with the mostly Christian men at Mountain Springs. Speaking about Morris Dees, chief of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which operates Klanwatch, he established a rapport with the combat-clad group by declaring that "Morris did a good job of attacking the Klan and the neo-Nazis when they needed to be attacked. Unfortunately, he's in the position of the dragon-slayer who's killed all the dragons and now the villagers won't pay him because there isn't any threat. So, invent a dragon--hence the militia movement."
Then he called for a purge within the militias. "I'm talking about racists, I'm talking about anti-Semites, I'm talking about agents provocateurs, I'm talking about loose cannons....To the extent that we ignore these people, we prove Morris right," he argued. His remarks were the most heated--and most applauded--of the day.
Not all militias, of course, have bought the message of openness, but their brush with bad publicity and FBI scrutiny in the wake of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City has convinced many of the militia brass that they must organize on two levels. They must train their ranks, just in case a day ever comes when they're militarily required to defend the nation against the threat of occupation or usurpation. Until that's possible--if ever it is--they must also court the press and the public in the usual ways.
This switch in militia orientation revealed at Mountain Springs has also been adopted by the once-notorious Northern Michigan Regional Militia, a recent report in the Village Voice notes. It has been so sudden that some observers don't believe it's real. An editor for the liberal weekly, the Nation, after attending a recent supermeeting of the ultra-right in Seattle, found that he could only warn his readers that militias are apparently being led by "traditional racists," i.e., formerly outspoken bigots who have not repudiated their pasts.
Mark Briskman, Dallas regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, says that "my own impression is that militia groups in Texas have not had any affiliation with organized hate groups." But he notes that in other states--he mentions Montana, in particular--the hate-group nexus is still in place. If the Militia Commanders federation breaks with the hatemongers, he says, "we surely welcome that." But, he adds, "Their philosophy of the world is one of conspiracy and paranoia, and if that philosophy is still adhered to, they're still participating in an age-old canard that blames Jews for all of the world's problems." Briskman says by his analysis, schemes which, for example, hold "eight international banking families, seven of whom are Jewish" responsible for the world's economic woes are to be taken as anti-Semitic, not merely as anti-banker theories.
Skeptics like Briskman might find a justification for their fears in some of the literature circulated at the Mountain Springs meet. A document entitled "Random Thoughts on the Second American Revolution," issued under the pen name Samuel Adams II, declares that, "One thing is plain, the time for armed resistance is not yet. Even so we must prepare for armed resistance while there is still time." The photocopied tract advocates a two-tier strategy for the militia movement: above-ground protest, underground preparations for war. But it doesn't disparage Jews or any minority: instead, it argues that "We've got to keep this strictly political. There is no place for racism in it. We are ALL Americans.... Remember that the first American killed in the Revolution was Crispus Attucks, a black man..." And under current gun laws, even preparing for war can be legally accomplished--especially if a group arms, as the Commanders are doing, after consultation with the FBI.
If the militia movement, or broad sectors of it, have adopted a new strategy of openness, some of its well-wishers have been slow to get the message. When Colorado State Senator Charles Duke addressed the Mountain Springs congress, he didn't allow his hosts to announce his appearance. And Duke, a high-profile darling of the constitutionalist movement, wouldn't take the podium until the press had been escorted off the land where the militiamen had pitched their tents.
"When I am asked by the media, 'Tell me about your contacts with the militia,' I say, 'I don't even know anybody in the militia,'" the senator explained. "So you're going to hear me say that. You're going to hear me deny that you exist or that you're a problem or any of those other things."
Duke, who is eyeing a race for the U.S. Senate, should have known that the cameras and microphones that stood before him were there for a purpose. Those in public life are supposed to know such things, after all.
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"I felt that no matter what we do here," Duke explained to a commander who questioned the need for stealth, "it's going to be misconstrued in Colorado."
Not anymore. Audio tapes of the militia conference went on public sale Tuesday night, and videocassettes will be available this week. Duke's southern Colorado constituency, if it cares, will have an electronically-accurate record of his remarks. A scenario in which a politician requests secrecy and militiamen give it up is not one that we'd expect, perhaps, but for at least some of the militia groups, it's the new order of things.
Jim Adams of the FBI, like politician Duke and some of the craftier militia leaders, isn't yet ready to lay all of his cards on the table. "I can't say that we're not investigating some of the militiamen," he admits, and adds that, "Just because we're talking to them doesn't mean that we won't have a problem."
Politicians, revolutionaries and G-men have always done much of their business in backrooms and basements, out of sight and hearing of the people whose interests they claim to represent. With luck, the meeting at Mountain Springs taught all three groups--none of them wildly popular right now--new lessons in openness.