Patriot Games: How the FBI spent a decade hunting white supremacists and missed Timothy McVeigh
April 23, 2012
In 1990, the FBI began picking up on rumors about an effort to reconstitute a notorious terrorist-criminal gang known as The Order.
During 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.
To prevent the rise of a “Second Order,” FBI undercover agents would become it.
Starting 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.
Code-named 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 federal government.
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.
PATCON 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.
Most 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.
The 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.
Initially, 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 cover.
Reed 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.
The FBI wanted to know more. To enhance Reed’s status and open a new channel of intelligence, an undercover operation was proposed.
There 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.
FBI 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.
FBI 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.
To 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 routines.
That 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…