Why the FBI Squelched an Investigation of a Post-9/11 Meeting Between White Supremacist and Islamic Extremists
The recent shooting at the Holocaust Museum serves as a stark reminder to us all that murderous racial and religious hatred still endures in America. One would expect the FBI to infiltrate and prosecute individuals and organizations that threaten domestic terrorist acts. But as this investigative report details, the large FBI bureaucracy, from the bottom to the very top, may well be more concerned with covering up its agents' own illegal misconduct than it is with actually protecting Americans from terrorist attack.
If the leader of the White Supremacist Organization was uncomfortable meeting the brown-skinned supporter of the Islamic terrorist group in Florida, he tried not to show it. After all, the two men had a common agenda, and in the up-coming War Against the Jews, the Islamic Extremist had agreed, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." It was January 2002 -- a mere four months after 9-11 -- and both men were intent on following up on that deadly terrorist attack with a "summit meeting" to discuss how their respective organizations could cement an alliance to cause more death and destruction in the United States and around the world.
It was the first meeting between the men. To break the ice, the White Supremacist mentioned his admiration for Adolf Hitler. The Islamic Extremist readily agreed that he shared that admiration and looked forward to joining with the White Supremacist in the goal of fomenting civil war in the USA. They both approved of suicide bombings. And they discussed how the White Supremacist Organization could launder money and provide financial assistance to the Islamic Terrorist Organization, which had already received arms shipments from Iran.
Perhaps, the Islamic Extremist suggested, they could begin by killing journalists that support the State of Israel. He was warming up quickly to the White Supremacist, untroubled by the latter's conviction that inferior brown-skinned people were destined to serve the Master White Race. "Anyone willing to shoot a Jew is a friend", the Islamic Extremist told the White Supremacist.
The first meeting went well, with neither man knowing that their friendly conversation had been recorded by a third person in the room, an informant working for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Soon, a transcript of this nasty conversation lay on the desk of the proto-terrorists' formidable opponent, FBI Special Agent Michael German, a blond-haired sixteen-year veteran of infiltrating white supremacist organizations, whose dedicated work had disrupted several attempted bombings, including an attempt to bomb a prominent African-American church in Los Angeles in the early 1990's.
Special Agent German was determined to investigate this incipient alliance before any great damage occurred to Americans. Keeping in mind Coleen Rowley, the FBI Special Agent whose detailed evidence that terrorists planned to fly airplanes into buildings before September 11th was ignored by her supervisors, German intended to make sure that his case, unlike hers, would not be ignored. If he had to, he would go all the way to the very top -- all the way up to FBI Director Robert Mueller himself.
Yet German's insistence on protecting American citizens from terrorists -- and doing it legally by the book -- eventually cost this venerable Special Agent his job. Director Mueller allowed the investigation to be squelched, with no evidence he ever reviewed the transcript of the murderous conversation between the White Supremacist and the Islamic Extremist.
Why would the Director of the FBI thwart scrutiny into this strange and deadly incipient partnership between domestic and foreign terrorists? And why would the Director cover up the FBI's refusal to investigate by isolating and punishing Agent German? Was Mueller a racist? An antisemite?
No. Mueller just wanted to protect the common lawlessness practiced everyday at the FBI. And he was willing to sacrifice American lives to do it.
In the era of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI actively spied on civil-rights activists and those opposing the Vietnam War. They bugged Martin Luther King and set up COINTELPRO to infiltrate and disrupt civil-rights and anti-war movements. But here, where the FBI could actually spy on and disrupt a racist terrorist group bent on murdering Americans, it quickly shelved the investigation.
Why? The answer is more mundane than Hoover's machinations but, in some respects, more troubling. The FBI of today is not so much racist as it is interested in covering up its rampant illegality and its regular violations of American civil liberties.
It seems the Tampa Office had made a slight error, easily repairable, in taping the conversation between the two extremists. The third person in the room, the FBI informant, had briefly excused himself for a few minutes. (It is not clear exactly why, but presumably "nature calls," even to the most hardened of FBI agents.) But during these few minutes, the informant's hidden microphone continued to record the conversation between the White Supremacist and the Islamic Extremist.
This was a violation of Federal Law. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures," and that includes private conversations. Such conversations can be recorded with "probable cause" but only upon obtaining a warrant, and the FBI informant did not yet have one. Federal Law does allow one party to a private conversation to clandestinely record a conversation in which he or she personally participates, but when the agent left the room, he inadvertently removed himself from that legal exception. (Warning to Readers: in addition to the restrictions under Federal Law, many States outlaw the warrantless recording of private conversations unless all parties are aware of the secret recording. That is why Maryland officials could criminally charge Linda Tripp for recording dozens of hours of telephone conversations with a certain Presidential intern. So please check your State Law before trying this at home.)
Special Agent Mike German was well aware of this Federal Law but not particularly concerned the illegal recording would disrupt the investigation. German knew the portion that was illegally recorded lasted only a few minutes. Fortunately, the murderous chat between the proto-terrorists about suicide bombings, shooting Jews, assassinating journalists, laundering money, and obtaining Iranian arms shipments was all nicely contained in the portion of the meeting attended by the intrepid informant. This legally-recorded portion, more than 95% of the conversation, was more than sufficient to show probable cause to a judge to obtain a warrant. And armed with the warrant, the FBI could then legally spy on any further conversations between the Islamic Extremist and the White Supremacist by tapping their phones and bugging their homes. The informant would no longer be necessary.
German acted quickly to infiltrate and disrupt this terrorist alliance before it could do any great damage. As the Tampa Office had never prosecuted terrorists before, German explained to them the proper procedure for segregating the small amount of illegally-recorded material from the mass of the legally-recorded audiotape. He urged them to immediately obtain a warrant. But the Tampa agent's curt response threw a wrench in German's plans: "We don't do that here."
German blinked his eyes in disbelief. The Tampa Office had called in Special Agent German in the first place precisely because German had experience in infiltrating and prosecuting domestic terrorists. But Tampa bristled at the idea that illegally-recorded material should be segregated. "Why don't we just pretend it didn't happen?" the Tampa agent casually suggested. "No one would ever know."
German patiently explained to the Tampa Office that while an unintentional illegal recording was no big deal, pretending it did not happen was actually a serious violation of criminal law. People would know, German told the Tampa agent, because it was obvious from the tape that the informant had left the room. Even if Tampa wanted to break the law, it would do no good to the investigation, because it would compromise any future prosecution. Defense attorneys would quickly seize on the obvious illegality to exclude from evidence the entire surreptitious recording. And the entire prosecution (in legal terms, the "fruit of the poisoned tree") might be jeopardized.
Tampa disagreed. "We never do this," they said. Furthermore, if German was going to get all persnickety about the Law and the Constitution, maybe he shouldn't be working on this case. Even though the Tampa Office had originally called German into their inquiry and made him their lead investigator, they had a new blunt warning for him: "Don't call back."
But German wouldn't let it go. He informed his supervisor. And when German's supervisor started asking questions, the Tampa Office ratcheted their crimes up a notch. Tampa's FBI Office stopped the terrorist investigation entirely and began forging official reports to cover up their illegal actions. Better to let American terrorists plan suicide bombings, these middle-management FBI agents decided, than to have the FBI be caught violating the law. If it were discovered that the Tampa FBI Office routinely broke the law, they must have reasoned, they might be out of a job or even criminally prosecuted themselves.
When German's supervisor failed to pressure Tampa to change its mind, German went to the Justice Department's Inspector General. Months passed with no word. Finally the Justice Department told German it had carefully reviewed the matter but there was no reason for German to be concerned, because Tampa had formally informed the Office, in a maze of contradictions, that: (1) the White Supremacist and the Islamic Extremist had never met; (2) but even if they had met, they never talked about terrorism; and (3) even if they had met and talked about terrorism, their meeting was not recorded. The Inspector General employee breezily informed German that because no transcript existed, the Tampa Office had done the right thing in closing the investigation.
But German had kept his trump card: a copy of that very transcript! As he plopped the "non-existent document" on the desk of the stunned Justice Department employee, German watched the man's eyes widen. Stunned, the official vowed to German to get to the bottom of it all. If German expected the Justice Department to discipline the Tampa FBI, he was sadly mistaken. Instead, the Inspector General's office -- an office institutionally designed to protect against professional misconduct -- compounded the problem. They tipped Tampa off, warning the Tampa FBI that German had a copy of the very transcript that Tampa had just denied ever existed. And lo and behold, a day or two later, German learned that Tampa had changed its story. The tape recording and transcript had been miraculously "found". And agents in Tampa had back-dated and changed their earlier false submissions (the ones denying the transcript) by counterfeiting official reports, so casually that the office literally used "white out" to cover up the fraud.
Tampa's new tale conceded that, yes, a transcript existed. However the information in the transcript, they said, did not contain serious enough threats to warrant further investigation. Apparently, an incipient conspiracy to assassinate journalists, launder money, and "shoot Jews" was not all that dangerous, coming from a White Supremacist that approved of suicide bombings and an Islamic Extremist known to have obtained arms from Iran. Realizing the apparent contradiction, the Justice Department's Inspector General's Office sent the issue back to the FBI to investigate itself.
This was a step backward. The FBI's inspection division lacks the supposed independence of the Justice Department's Inspector General to investigate whether the FBI itself is lying and participating in a cover-up. But Agent German did not give up. Knowing the FBI would not successfully investigate itself, German finally took his concern all the way up to FBI Director Robert Mueller himself. German formally provided Mueller's office with the full transcript of the proto-terrorists' conversation and a detailed description of exactly what had occurred between the two men and in the Tampa Office.
Mueller's response was quick and devastating. Within a week of Mueller's office receiving the transcript, Special Agent German was investigated for his alleged improper behavior. German's superiors were told to investigate a $50 expense German had incurred during his trip to Tampa to see if it was justified. (German was later exonerated for this expense.) German was officially kicked off the Tampa case, and told he would "never work undercover again," even though German had spent more than a decade developing an expertise in infiltrating white supremacist organizations and preventing their domestic terrorist attacks. With 80% of his workload now gone, German had no future at the FBI.
Near the end of 2003, almost two years after what German refers to as the "terrorist summit meeting" in Florida, the FBI's internal inspection division finally issued its report. They concluded no one was at fault, no terrorism had occurred, and no laws were broken. Furthermore, because the FBI inspection division claimed it was unable to determine who in Tampa had falsified the records and lied to the Inspector General, no one at the FBI would be punished whatsoever (except for German). And in the most severe blow to the security of Americans, the FBI decided it would no longer send informants to investigate this incipient White-Supremacist/Islamic-Extremist Terrorist Alliance.
Months passed. German repeatedly urged the Department of Justice's Inspector General to reopen its earlier investigation. No response. Finally, Agent German had had enough. He had tried everything. He saw that the FBI, from the bottom to the very top, was more interested in protecting itself than in prosecuting terrorists. So, in the spring of 2004, he decided he had only one option left: to inform Congress, even if it meant ending his sixteen-year status as a covert agent. He resigned from the FBI and marched into the office of Republican Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa to tell his story.
Under strict FBI orders, German had to leave behind the damaging transcript of the conversation between the White Supremacist and the Islamic Extremist. German's superiors warned him never to publicly identify the terrorist groups represented by the two men. No one except German seemed to notice the apparent incongruity between this order and the FBI's continued official denial that any terrorist meeting had taken place in the first place.
Without a transcript or anything other than Agent German's say-so, Senator Grassley's staff proceeded to investigate. Meanwhile, the FBI went into full damage mode. A FBI spokeswoman went on Dateline NBC to publicly deny that the White Supremacist and Islamic Extremist groups had even discussed working together, much less discussed terrorist acts. The FBI also issued a false press release, retreating to its old lie that no transcript of the conversation ever existed. Apparently, the FBI hoped to trick Senator Grassley into believing their august organization was telling the truth, rather than accepting the word of one of its renegade G-men.
Grassley was not buying it. When, at his behest, the Senate Judiciary Committee sent a formal letter to the FBI demanding they turn over the "non-existent" transcript, the FBI was caught in a difficult choice: they either had to criminally obstruct a United States Senator or finally admit they'd been lying all along. The FBI stonewalled. They simply did not answer the letter, hoping Grassley would go away.
Senator Grassley's staff then turned to the Justice Department's Inspector General's office (the same office which had tipped off Tampa and ignored German following the FBI's internal self-inspection) and pressured them to re-investigate the matter. In February 2006, more than four years after the terrorist meeting and some two years after German complained about it to Grassley, the Inspector General finally issued a new report, finding serious misconduct by the FBI. The report confirmed the FBI had: (1) mishandled the investigations, (2) intentionally falsified documents, and (3) intentionally retaliated against German.
Inspector's Report in hand, Grassley's staff again turned to the FBI and insisted it turn over the "non-existent" transcript. Six months later in August 2006, the FBI finally (and, one imagines, sheepishly) sent Grassley the very transcript whose existence they had so vociferously denied. But the FBI still refused to investigate the "terrorist summit," already four and a half years stale.
At an official oversight hearing in March 2007, Senator Grassley had his first opportunity to face Director Mueller mano a mano to ask him publicly under oath why the FBI did not jump at the chance to infiltrate these organizations instead of wasting its time retaliating against Special Agent German. (This question came as no surprise to Mueller. Grassley had informed Director Mueller that the subject would come up and forwarded him a copy of German's elusive transcript prior to the hearing.) Mueller told Grassley publicly that he had never read the transcript(!), but promised he would get back to the Senator "within the next several days." A year passed with no response.
The annual oversight hearing came up again in March 2008, giving Grassley once more his opportunity to confront Mueller. The FBI prepared in advance with typical obfuscation, issuing a new report claiming "insufficient evidence of terrorist activity to warrant further investigation." Concealing its mostly unclassified report by stuffing it with a few small bits of classified information, the FBI hid it out of public view in the Senate Security Office. Then, in an amazing display of the power of Catch-22, the FBI issued two stark and dramatically contradictory conclusions: (1) there was never any "missed opportunity" to investigate these terrorist groups; and (2) the FBI could not tell Grassley why these terrorists did not pose a threat because explaining the lack of a threat would endanger national security. Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky could not have said it better.
This refusal to provide information made the public hearing itself a sharp disappointment. Senator Grassley again queried Director Mueller on the FBI cover-up. And Mueller again stonewalled. Grassley sighed in frustration. It was a waste of time. After all, it was Mueller's office that had allowed the investigation to be squelched and punished German for having the audacity to put American lives ahead of FBI lawlessness. Why would anyone ever expect Mueller to come clean? It's not like the story was on the front pages of the nation's newspapers.
Another year and some months have passed to bring us to the present day. Last month, a known White Supremacist killed a security guard on a shooting rampage at the Holocaust museum. But high-level operatives of White Supremacist and Islamic Extremist organizations -- the first known foreign/domestic terrorist alliance -- are able to plan similar shootings and worse, unmolested by the FBI. Sure, the FBI concedes, they met at a summit meeting and discussed their plans to shoot Jews and journalists. Sure, they discussed laundering money, the arms they obtained from Iran, and their approval of suicide bombings. But, according to the same FBI that originally investigated them -- until its own agents were caught breaking the law -- these proto-terrorists never posed a threat serious enough to warrant investigation. (Of course, as Coleen Rowley discovered, detailed preparation by Islamic Extremists to fly airplanes into American buildings was also considered by the FBI an insufficient threat and unworthy of investigation.). Why not? We can't tell you, says the FBI. Because learning why this dangerous plotting does not pose a terrorist threat does endanger national security. George Orwell would be proud.
It's an astonishing irony. The Senate Judiciary Committee and Former FBI Agent German, now working for the American Civil Liberties Union, are practically begging the FBI to undertake legal surveillance under a warrant of known domestic and foreign terrorist organizations cooperating together to commit terrorist acts. But the Justice Department, which demanded immunity from Congress for its illegal warrantless wiretapping of millions of Americans who have committed no crime and have never discussed murdering or bombing anyone, refuses to investigate actual terrorists discussing actual crimes on American soil. In this respect, the Obama Justice Department, with Director Robert Mueller still at the helm of the FBI, is no different than the Bush Justice Department, still preferring the easy illegal monitoring of innocent American citizens over the legal wiretapping of murderous, plotting terrorists.
As of today, a copy of the fated transcript of the summit meeting between the Islamic Extremist and the White Supremacist still sits in a locked safe in Senator Grassley's office. The public is forbidden from seeing any part of a transcript of a conversation that the FBI claims posed no danger and warranted no investigation. As of today, not a single agent in the FBI has been disciplined for misconduct in this case: none for lying to investigators, none for falsifying documents, none for failing to investigate the incipient foreign/domestic Islamic Extremist/White Supremacist Alliance, and certainly none for the regular practice of covering up illegal wiretapping.
Only one agent in the FBI has been punished in this whole sordid matter: straight-arrow Mike German, who dared to insist the FBI follow the law. (German now works for the ACLU and is promoting his book Thinking Like a Terrorist.) German has learned the hard way that the FBI and the Mafia actually have a lot in common. In both organizations, the greatest transgression an operative can do is to insist his boss follow the law.
As for the White Supremacist and Islamic Extremist leaders, they are almost certainly aware by now that their conversation was taped, placing the career (and quite possibly the life) of the FBI informant who recorded them in grave jeopardy. Next time, the White Supremacist and Islamic Extremist will be more careful. They will bide their time. In the War Against the Jews, they can be patient. They can meet in another city and carefully coordinate their terrorist attacks without being under the watchful eye of the United States Government.
They are lucky that the FBI cares more about covering up its illegal surveillance methods than it does about using legal surveillance methods to stop terrorism.