America's Homegrown Terrorists
Just before Christmas, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge raised the terrorist alert level from yellow -- an elevated risk of terrorist attack -- to orange, indicative of a high risk of attack, after "indications" that terrorists may have been planning attacks to coincide with the holiday season and beyond. The Secretary encouraged Americans to go about their holiday plans because... you guessed it... "if we alter our plans...then they [terrorists] have won because they have dislocated activity, they have caused economic loss and made us act in ways simply by threatening us and we cannot be burdened by that threat or fear."
According to Ridge, "some of the intelligence information that prompted the alert level change indicates that al-Qaeda is once again seeking to use airplanes as weapons of mass destruction as it did in the September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington," Voice of America reported.
Once the alert level was raised, America's cable news networks had a field day: They brought out their "War on Terrorism" banners and focused unswerving attention on the myriad potential threats from overseas. An atmosphere of fear was created, a climate that has prevailed for better than two weeks. Actions by government officials ranged from the cancellation of several Air France flights to the US, because they supposedly contained al-Qaeda operatives -- a charge that was quickly proven false -- to an FBI warning to be on the lookout for people carrying almanacs -- a patently ridiculous directive.
While it's wise for the government to be vigilant about al-Qaeda-type threats, are law enforcement officials so fixated on foreign groups that they're overlooking threats from America's homegrown terrorists? Are the mainstream media so consumed by "chatter" that they're giving America's antigovernment and religious extremists a pass?
Since the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, domestic terrorists haven't succeeded in carrying out a major act of terrorism on US soil -- but that's not for lack of trying. When most Americans think about terrorism against the homeland, they envision the threat coming from outside the United States. However, despite the collapse of the militia, individual right wing fanatics, paramilitary groups and "leaderless cells" of antigovernment activists continue to plan major terrorist acts.
Last May, federal agents uncovered a storage locker filled with deadly chemicals near the East Texas town of Noonday. The cache included sodium cyanide and other highly toxic chemicals, as well as land mine components, briefcase bombs, trip wire and more than 60 fully operational pipe bombs. Also found were machine guns and other illegal weapons; hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition; and a variety of neo-Nazi literature. Most chilling of all, however, was the discovery of an entirely functional sodium cyanide bomb capable of killing anyone "within a 30,000 foot facility" as well as "documents indicating that unknown co-conspirators may still be free to carry out what appeared to be an advanced plot."
Three antigovernment activists were rounded up: Edward Feltus, 56, a member of the New Jersey Militia movement; William Krar, a 62-year-old tax protester with ties to the New Hampshire militia and a range of hate groups; and Judith L. Bruey, 54, Krar's common-law wife. Last November, Krar pleaded guilty to federal charges of "possessing a dangerous chemical weapon" and faces up to life in prison. Bruey and Feltus also pleaded guilty to different charges. According to CBS news, hundreds of federal subpoenas were issued during the course of the investigation, intelligence experts were alarmed enough to include mention of the case in President Bush's daily intelligence briefings, and more deadly cyanide bombs may still be in circulation.
Like the arrest of alleged abortion clinic bomber Eric Robert Rudolph in Murray, N.C., last May, the discovery of deadly weapons arsenals in Texas points to the continuing danger posed by the domestic terrorists of the radical right. Yet there has still been no word from US Attorney General John Ashcroft about the Texas case -- no high-profile news conferences or sharply worded denunciations of the threat of terrorism coming from Timothy McVeigh's political descendants and ideological comrades-in-arms.
Writing in Salon.com about the prosecution of Clayton Waagner, the Army of God foot-soldier who "mailed hundreds of envelopes stuffed with white powder and threatening letters to abortion clinics and reproductive rights organizations" shortly after Sept. 11, veteran investigator Frederick Clarkson observed that the two-week trial was "remarkable, not so much for its verdict as for the near-complete lack of media attention that it attracted." Waagner was charged with more than 50 federal counts, including threatening to use weapons of mass destruction. "[However], in a news culture obsessed with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and overseas terror threats, few reporters were there for the denouement."
The lack of widespread coverage of the Waagner trial has been the rule rather than the exception when homegrown terrorists are involved. One journalist who has closely followed all these developments is Daniel Levitas, author of The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, Nov. 2002, 520 pp. $16.95 paper, $27.95 cloth), soon to released in paperback.
In an e-mail exchange, Levitas told me that he was curious about the lack of media coverage of the Tyler, Texas case so he telephoned the chief Department of Justice antiterrorism coordinator for the Eastern District of Texas, who is an assistant US attorney. According to Levitas, "He confirmed all of the details as previously reported in the media and then some. This case was huge," the assistant US attorney told Levitas. "The real facts of this case are as bad or 'worse' than all previous reports and it does not appear as if media exaggeration is at work," Levitas said.
Levitas, who has testified for nearly two decades as an expert witness in state, federal and Canadian courts about the activities of far right and neo-Nazi groups, pointed out that during his discussion with the DOJ's antiterrorism coordinator, he discovered that:
"The sodium cyanide device was fully functional and could have killed anyone within a 30,000 sq. foot facility; "Krar's stockpile contained more than 100 explosives, including 60 fully functional pipe bombs, as well as land mine components, det cord and trip wire and binary explosives; machine guns and other illegal weapons; and racist, anti-Semitic and antigovernment literature, including William Pierce's Turner Diaries; "Krar, a tax protester who has never been indicted for his tax-related offenses, is from New Hampshire and has numerous ties to white supremacist and militia groups; "Feltus was a member of the New Jersey Militia; "The statute under which Krar was prosecuted has been used only five times or fewer in its entire history because of the rarity of finding individuals with bona fide chemical weapons"; and "Federal authorities have served more than 150 subpoenas in connection with the case, but still remain concerned that others may be involved, and the investigation is ongoing."
Although Levitas didn't pursue the issue of whether information about the Krar investigation was included in the president's daily intelligence briefings, he said that "judging from the veracity of all previous reports, I'd bank that this, too, is accurate."
Why the severely limited coverage of the original arrests? Levitas believes that the Tyler, Texas arrests came at a time when the media was "distracted" by the invasion of Iraq. However, "unlike the numerous arrests of suspected Al Qaeda militants, Attorney General John Ashcroft said nothing about this case."
In response to a telephone interview Dan Yurman, a long term Idaho human rights activist who has closely followed militia-type movements, thinks that the Texas case didn't get as much attention as it deserved because of the way the news media routinely conducts its business these days -- through the extensive use of "automated search tools."
"The DOJ/FBI press release did not use the term 'domestic terrorism' in the text of their press release," Yurman told me. This is significant because "the term 'domestic terrorism' is a key search term for automated search tools used by the news media." Given that the news media relies heavily upon these "automated search tools" -- commercial services such as Lexis-Nexis, Factiva (Dow Jones/Reuters), etc., as well as noncommercial services including Yahoo and Google -- "many of the prior cases involving chemical or biological weapons have been described by the government with the phrase 'domestic terrorism'... [which] made it easier to flag those stories." Often, "the decision to follow up on a government press release hinges, in part, on whether it contains this phrase," Yurman said.
Levitas agreed with Yurman's assessment that "had the DOJ and early news reports more prominently mentioned 'Domestic Terrorism' in bold type, then there would have been greater attention paid to the arrests. However," Levitas adds, "the terms 'chemical weapons' were used and that should have been picked up relatively easily on a search."
If "there been a news conference in Washington, DC, featuring the Attorney General and highlighting the discovery of chemical weapons in the home state of President George Bush, rest assured this would have become a major national news story," Levitas maintains. "For reasons known only to John Ashcroft and the PR department at Justice, the decision was made to not give this case the same prominence as other terrorism related arrests. Somehow, I do believe that if suspected Al Qaeda operatives had been arrested with a fully functional sodium cyanide bomb in East Texas or anywhere else in the nation for that matter, this would have been a page one story. It is only now that Krar has pleaded guilty, that more news is getting out and this case is becoming more visible."
"Press coverage of domestic terrorism has come in fits and starts and has never been consistent," Frederick Clarkson told WorkingForChange. While Clarkson also believes there are many reasons for this, he said that "perhaps the leading reason is that many of our domestic hate groups and terror groups are religiously motivated and it would be hard to imagine a news outlet -- or for that matter, the Justice Department -- having the nerve to call them 'faith based' groups. News media and government officials are deeply fearful of offending people's religious sensibilities or being accused of being anti-religion and this fact alone profoundly inhibits coverage of important news stories and long term trends."