Liberal counterinsurgency versus the paramilitary right

Three Way Fight


In this article I’m going to discuss U.S. security forces’ changing response to the paramilitary right. I will argue the following:

  1. Although U.S. security forces have an important history of collaborating with or even sponsoring right-wing paramilitary groups in the United States, the past three decades have seen the rise of an insurgent far right that rejects the legitimacy of the U.S. government and has sometimes taken up arms against it.
  2. Security forces have periodically cracked down on this insurgent right when it has engaged in open warfare against the state apparatus, but to a large extent their approach to the insurgent right has been reactive, inconsistent, and counterproductive from the standpoint of maintaining social control.
  3. A liberal faction of the ruling class is promoting a smarter approach to combating the paramilitary right, one that is both more preemptive and more sensitive to rightist fears of state repression. This approach, which has been advanced most fully by the New America Foundation, represents an application of counterinsurgency strategy, a theory of repression that addresses popular grievances in order to bolster elite power more effectively.

Federal agencies have a long history of covert involvement in far right paramilitary organizations, but the nature of this involvement has changed dramatically as the politics of the U.S. far right have changed. During the 1960s, the FBI often refused to intervene as the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists physically attacked civil right workers. Between 1969 and 1972, U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence and the Chicago Police jointly operated a far right group called the League of Justice, which burglarized, bugged, and vandalized socialist and anti-war groups. In 1971-1972, the FBI sponsored the paramilitary Secret Army Organization, which targeted anti-war leftists with spying, vandalism, mail theft, assassination plots, shootings, and bombings. The SAO was based in San Diego and claimed branches in eleven states. Most notoriously, in 1979 an FBI informer and an agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms helped to plan the Greensboro massacre, in which a coalition of Klansmen and neonazis murdered five members of the Communist Workers Party. (See Donner, Protectors of Privilege, pp. 146-50; Churchill and Vander Wall, Agents of Repression, pp. 181-2.)

Starting in the early 1980s, the political center of gravity within the far right shifted from a traditional focus on targeting leftists and people of color to a fascist ideology that identified the “Zionist Occupation Government” in Washington as the main enemy. Several Klan leaders re-emerged as neonazis, such as Tom Metzger, who founded White Aryan Resistance, and Louis Beam, who joined Aryan Nations and pioneered the concept of “leaderless resistance.” Some far rightists called for a White revolution to overthrow the U.S. government, as portrayed in William Pierce’s 1978 novel, The Turner Diaries, while others envisioned an independent Aryan enclave in the Pacific Northwest. In 1983, members of several far-right groups formed an underground paramilitary group known as The Order, which “declared war” on the U.S. government, robbed banks and armored cars, counterfeited money, assassinated Jewish talk show host Alan Berg, and engaged in armed combat with police. Other groups followed The Order’s example.

The federal apparatus responded aggressively to this shift. Leonard Zeskind writes that “the Reagan administration’s Justice Department…had previously demonstrated little interest in federal prosecutions of attacks by white supremacists on black people and other ordinary citizens,” but The Order and related groups pushed them to respond more aggressively. “The FBI planted more confidential informants inside white supremacist groups, started tapping phones, and made arrests in a number of incipient criminal conspiracies” (Blood and Politics, pp. 145-6). By 1985, the federal government had killed The Order’s leader in a shootout and sent most of its members to prison. Over the next few years, members of several other neonazi groups were arrested and prosecuted, although the biggest effort — the 1988 Fort Smith trial of fourteen white supremacists on seditious conspiracy and other charges — ended in acquittals.

Although many white supremacists rejected an underground strategy, the 1980s gave the movement a list of martyrs and cemented militant opposition to federal authority as an ideological pole on the far right. In the early 1990s, neonazis began to link up with hardline Christian rightists, libertarians, and Birchite anti-globalists in the germ of what would become the Patriot movement, the first U.S. mass movement since World War II in which fascist and non-fascist rightists worked together in coalition. Patriot groups did not necessarily embrace right-wing revolution or racial ideology, but they regarded the U.S. government as part of a plot by globalist elites to take away their freedom, and they advocated forming “citizen militias” to defend themselves against tyranny. Deadly and arguably murderous operations by federal officers fed the growth of the movement, especially the 1992 siege and arrest of white supremacist Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge, Idaho (an operation that killed Weaver’s wife and teenage son along with a U.S. marshal), and the April 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas (in which eighty members of the cult and four federal agents died).

By 1996 the Patriot movement included some 850 identified groups. An entire subculture, encompassing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of supporters, regarded the established state apparatus as evil and illegitimate. With tens of thousands of them organized in private armed units and a network of “common law courts” claiming to exercise government functions, the movement was creating a type of embryonic dual power in some areas. Although the majority of Patriot activists viewed this as a defensive stance, neonazis and others who advocated offensive actions against the state were a significant part of the mix.

At first, security forces did little to clamp down on the Patriot movement overtly. (Zeskind and others have pointed out that a predominantly black or brown movement spouting anti-government rhetoric and conducting paramilitary training would have been treated very differently.) But in April 1995, neonazi Timothy McVeigh and others blew up the Oklahoma City federal building, killing 168 people, and Patriot militias were widely blamed for the attack. After that, the FBI pursued a wide-ranging crackdown. Here are a few examples from 1995-1998, drawn from a Patriot movement timeline compiled by the liberal Southern Poverty Law Center, which works closely with the FBI:

  • a tax protester arrested for placing a failed bomb behind the Reno, Nevada, IRS building
  • three members of the Republic of Georgia militia charged with manufacturing shrapnel-packed bombs and training a team to assassinate politicians
  • twelve members of the Arizona Viper Team arrested on federal conspiracy, weapons and explosives charges
  • seven members of the Mountaineer Militia arrested in a plot to blow up the FBI’s national fingerprint records center in West Virginia
  • former Sons of Liberty and other tax protesters set fire to the IRS office in Colorado Springs
  • eight members of a militia group arrested in connection with a plan to invade Fort Hood, Texas, and kill foreign troops mistakenly believed to be housed there
  • three men, including one with ties to the separatist Republic of Texas, charged with conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction after threatening President Clinton and other federal officials with biological weapons.

This crackdown contributed to the Patriot movement’s collapse in the late 1990s. The movement remained stagnant for a decade, but has been growing fast again since President Obama’s election in 2008 and is now believed to be larger than at its peak in the 1990s. Patriot movement groups continue to promote fears of a New World Order conspiracy and challenge the legitimacy of the existing state apparatus, and the movement continues to overlap with more hardline fascist currents.

The state apparatus seems to be conflicted about how to address the paramilitary right. Over the past decade, FBI reports have repeatedly identified right-wing violence as a serious threat, for example in 2004. In 2006, the FBI warned that neonazis were trying to infiltrate law enforcement agencies, and in 2007 they highlighted the threat from solo white supremacists (prefiguring, for example, Wade Michael Page’s attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin earlier this year). But in 2009, when conservatives denounced the Department of Homeland Security for a report on the resurgence of “Rightwing Extremism,” DHS repudiated the report and disbanded the unit that was studying non-Islamic domestic terrorism. Also in 2009, a report about the militia movement from the Missouri Information Analysis Center (one of the DHS-sponsored “fusion centers”) met a similar fate.

Enter the New America Foundation, an elite-based think tank that addresses foreign policy, counterterrorism, and a range of other issues. In 2011 and 2012, their staffers and fellows warned in various media (such as a scholarly study, a panel presentation, and a heavily cited CNN op-ed) that home-grown “extremists” — and especially rightists — posed a terrorist threat as big as or bigger than Islamist groups. At the same time, NAF is critical of blundering government efforts that fuel the growth of the far right. In May 2012 they put out a detailed policy paper, by investigative journalist J.M. Berger, about an early 1990s undercover operation called PATCON, in which FBI agents created a dummy white supremacist group to gather intelligence about violent plots by far rightists within the budding Patriot movement. Among other criticisms, the policy paper argues that PATCON helped reinforce Patriot movement paranoia about government repression and agents provocateurs — and compares this to the effect of scattershot police surveillance on American Muslim communities. In NAF’s view, infiltration is still “an important tool,” but it needs to be managed more responsibly and with more understanding of how it can damage targeted communities’ “trust in government and willingness to cooperate with law enforcement” (p. 23). (Thanks to Nick Paretsky for pointing me to NAF’s PATCON policy paper.)

To understand the significance of this report, a bit of background about the New America Foundation is important. First, NAF represents the liberal Eastern establishment wing of the ruling class. Almost two-thirds of the members of its board of directors hold positions in business (most frequently investments), while the rest are mostly academics or journalists. Over three-quarters of the directors hold Ivy League (mostly Harvard) degrees or work at an Ivy League university, and some forty percent of them are current or former members of the Council on Foreign Relations. NAF’s board is chaired by Eric Schmidt (chair and former CEO of Google); other prominent board members include hedge fund manager Jonathan Soros (son of George Soros) and “end of history” political scientist Francis Fukuyama. Not surprisingly, some right-wing conspiracy theorists have pointed to NAF as a major node linking global capitalists, Marxist journalists, and the Obama administration in a sinister plot to manipulate public opinion.

Second, NAF is a strong proponent of counterinsurgency strategy (COIN). Kristian Williams has described COIN as a style of warfare that’s characterized by “an emphasis on intelligence, security and peace-keeping operation, population control, propaganda, and efforts to gain the trust of the people” (p. 84). NAF argues that “the ‘global war on terror’ is better conceived as a global counterinsurgency campaign, which typically involves a 20% military approach and an 80% ‘softer’ approach that uses other levers and incentives.” The foundation has promoted this shift with regard to Iraq, Pakistan, and — perhaps most interestingly — India: An October 2011 article by NAF’s Sameer Lalwani criticized the Indian government’s heavily militarized approach to combating the maoist Naxalite insurgency as “brutal and incomplete (by western standards)” and urged institutional overhauls to redress the “distribution of power controlled by the state and elite cadres.” This approach is in the tradition of the CIA funding European social democrats in the 1950s in order to undercut support for Communism.

As many leftists have argued, COIN is as much a sophisticated approach to state repression as it is a form of warfare. Williams argues that “the two major developments in American policing since the 1960s — militarization and community policing — are actually two aspects of a domestic counterinsurgency program” (p. 90). In The New State Repression, Ken Lawrence highlighted security forces’ shift from a reactive approach — targeting groups after they’ve engaged in some kind of political protest — to a preemptive approach, which assumes that even in periods of calm, opponents of the state are “out there plotting and organizing, so the police must go find them, infiltrate them, and plant provocateurs among them” (p. 6). Lawrence traced this “strategy of permanent repression” to the work of British counterinsurgency expert Frank Kitson in Kenya, northern Ireland, and elsewhere, which involved, for example, the creation of “pseudo gangs” as a tactic to confuse and weaken genuine opposition forces. Promoted and refined by both police and military forces in the U.S., domestic counterinsurgency strategy has also been embraced by the Canadian military, as noted by Anthropologists for Justice and Peace.

Without using the term, NAF’s PATCON policy paper invokes counterinsurgency strategy in several important ways. First, author J.M. Berger focuses on a specific FBI program from twenty years ago which — unlike the bureau’s better-known reactive measures — took a preemptive, interventionist approach to the early Patriot movement, and that even created a pseudo-gang as part of this effort. In the Spring of 1991, FBI agents in Austin, Texas, created a phony neonazi organization called the Veterans Aryan Movement (VAM), which claimed to be following in The Order’s footsteps: robbing banks and armored cars, stockpiling weapons, and building links with like-minded groups around the country. With this cover story, the VAM was well positioned to spy on genuine neonazis and other members of the Patriot movement that was just beginning to coalesce at this time. Officially, PATCON was supposed to investigate specific potential crimes, but in practice it was an open-ended intelligence-gathering operation. PATCON operatives reported lots of talk about violence by Patriot activists, but almost none of this information was used in prosecutions. At one point, PATCON operatives even withheld information from Army investigators about a theft of night vision goggles from Fort Hood, in order to protect their own operation. In July 1993 the FBI ended PATCON, ostensibly because it had failed to uncover actual criminal activity.

Also in line with counterinsurgency strategy, NAF’s PATCON report emphasizes the need for security forces to bolster the state’s legitimacy and, in Williams’s words, “gain the trust of the people.” The policy paper’s full title is “PATCON: The FBI’s Secret War Against the ‘Patriot’ Movement, and How Infiltration Tactics Relate to Radicalizing Influences.” Berger, who first uncovered PATCON in 2007 as a result of Freedom of Information Act requests, describes how fear of infiltrators pervaded the Patriot movement during PATCON itself, and how public knowledge of the operation has fueled wide-ranging conspiracy theories about the federal government. (Although Berger’s account is assuredly not the whole story, claims that PATCON included the Ruby Ridge and Waco operations and even the Oklahoma City bombing, or that it continued long after 1993, are unsubstantiated.)

Berger writes in the NAF policy paper, “The reality of the FBI’s extensive infiltration of the Patriot movement helps reinforce a paranoid worldview in which the government becomes the perpetrator of crimes like the Oklahoma City bombing, thus exonerating true radical figures and providing a fresh (if usually false) grievance to fuel further radicalization” (p. 22). The report ends with a list of recommendations for assessing infiltration’s “secondary effects” on targeted populations — not to argue for abolishing police infiltration of political groups, but so that security forces can use the technique more carefully and effectively. (This emphasis on cultivating popular trust in government seems to reflect NAF’s concern more than Berger’s. It is lacking from Berger’s other writings about PATCON, including his original 2007 report and his April 2012 article in Foreign Policy.)

Lastly, NAF’s PATCON paper is concerned with improving infiltration techniques not only against rightists but against “potential extremists” more broadly. PATCON is presented as a case study of “the infiltration dilemma” alongside the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslim communities in New York City. These two examples were paired more fully in a May 2012 NAF-sponsored panel on “Infiltration and Surveillance: Countering Homegrown Terrorism,” in which Berger spoke about PATCON. Here the moderator asked panelists and audience members to set aside moral and legal issues and focus on the questions, when do infiltration techniques work and how well do they work?

The Council on Foreign Relations has also advanced some aspects of a counterinsurgency approach to the paramilitary right. A 2010 op-ed by CFR Fellow and counterterrorism analyst Lydia Khalil urged conservatives to stop minimizing “the serious and growing threat of homegrown right-wing extremism” and to identify rightist violence against government institutions as acts of terrorism. A 2011 CFR report by Jonathan McMasters on “Militant Extremists in the United States” argued the same points in more detail and advocated a preemptive, intelligence-gathering approach to counter rightist violence. Masters’s report outlined the “domestic intelligence infrastructure” available to support such work, including the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, the Department of Homeland Security’s Fusion Center program, and the widespread adoption of “intelligence-led policing” by local police departments. While noting civil liberties concerns, the report gave the last word to CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Richard Falkenrath, who advocates more “permissive” constraints on security forces. Neither Khalil nor McMasters addressed NAF’s concern about the tension between gathering intelligence and cultivating popular support for the state, but in other ways the approaches are similar.

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From the standpoint of a ruling class trying to maintain social control, the New America Foundation’s approach to rightist violence makes a lot of sense. If you are serious about combating “terrorism,” then you need to deal with the homegrown paramilitary right, which has a persistent base of support and has made U.S. government institutions a target for some thirty years. Since paramilitary rightists may be organizing and planning even when they’re not carrying out violent attacks, you want your security forces to get to know rightist networks from the inside instead of just reacting to the attacks after they happen. And given that heavy-handed police actions have repeatedly fueled widespread rightist fears about state repression, you need to take these fears into account if you want support for rightist paramilitary violence to shrink instead of grow.

Like many instances of counterinsurgency strategy, NAF’s approach here is also well crafted to win backing from liberals and some leftists, who worry about the far right but also worry about police misconduct. In presenting the paramilitary right not just as a criminal network but as a political movement with real grievances, NAF is appropriating an argument that some opponents of the far right (including me) have been making for years. The following point by Kristian Williams applies to movements of the right as well as the left: “As a matter of realpolitik the authorities have to respond in some manner to popular demands; however, COIN allows them to do so in a way that at least preserves, and in the best case amplifies, their overall control. The purpose of counterinsurgency is to prevent any real shift in power” (“The other side of the COIN,” p. 85).

We need to be clear that U.S. security forces exist ultimately to maintain ruling class control. They are not, and cannot be, defenders of democracy, and relying on them to combat supremacist movements is a dangerous mistake. While there is a long history of security forces using paramilitary rightists to carry out vigilante repression, there is also a long history of the U.S. government using fears of rightist violence to expand its powers of repression against everyone else. As Don Hamerquist has pointed out previously on Three Way Fight, “when did this country outlaw strikes, ban seditious organizing and speech, intern substantial populations in concentration camps, and develop a totalitarian mobilization of economic, social, and cultural resources for military goals? Obviously it was during WWII, the period of the official capitalist mobilization against fascism, barbarism and for ‘civilization.'”

As Hamerquist argues, we need to “worry much more about the consequences of ruling class ‘anti fascism,’ than [about] ruling class propensities to impose fascism from above.” Building on Walden Bello’s warning that leftists need to combat not only neoliberalism but also “global social democracy” (an emerging ruling-class strategy that seeks to mitigate global inequality and environmental destruction in a technocratic capitalist framework), Hamerquist suggests that an authoritarian anti-fascism could become a lynchpin of global social democracy. “The fear of fascism will become the functional substitute for improved terms in the sale of labor power. And the likelihood is, I think, that there will be a fascism to fear.” Nick Paretsky has already cited the New America Foundation as a prime example of ruling-class support for global social democracy. Now, in advocating a counterinsurgency response to the far right, NAF is taking this one step further.

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