Fax Commandos

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.

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Dick J. Reavis