On the 8th floor of the FBI’s Washington Field Office, not far from the nation’s Capitol, Tom O’Connor, a veteran FBI agent on the domestic terrorism squad, recently sat down in a little office with ticklethewire.com editor Allan Lengel.
O’Connor, a former Northampton, Mass., police officer, who has been with the FBI since 1997, talked about the state of the white supremacist movement, the success some members have had running racist recording companies, the lack of leadership nationwide, the infighting and the impact of the Obama factor and the ailing economy.
“As the economy goes longer in a downturn, I think you’re going to see the recruitment being more successful just because people are angry at the government or angry at themselves more than anything else, but they blame everybody else,” O’Connor says.
“Guys who get involved in this stuff pretty much have pretty crappy lives. But they don’t take any responsibility for that crappy life that they have. They blame everybody else.”
The following is a condensed interview. The questions were edited for clarity. (O’Connor requested that his photo not be taken because he’s still working active cases).
After Sept. 11, the FBI shifted its focus to international terrorism. What has happened since then in terms of domestic terrorism and white supremacist groups?
The squads that had the primary investigative goal to work domestic groups, we’re still working those domestic groups. I’ve been on a domestic terrorism squad since 1997. And that hasn’t changed. Our thought is you don’t take your eye off the ball just because you have another ball on the court.
The White Power recording industry, how prominent is that in the whole movement?
They have their own style of music, white power music and there’s several white power recording labels that sell stuff, that normal everyday recording companies won’t do. Real hate music. If you listen to it, every other word is an n word. The mainstream won’t publish that stuff. And these people stepped in, and now it’s pretty easy to do a recording. It’s not like in the old days where you had to actually do vinyl. This is somebody with a cd player that pretty much burns thousands of discs and sells them, gives them away to kids at schools and that kind of stuff to try and get recruitments.
Is it more a propaganda tool or a money making tool?
Well, a money making tool and a propaganda tool.
Is it highly profitable?
There’s a lot of money being made by a small number of record labels. That’s where they run into problems where the person who is making money, a lot of times they end up destroying their company from within because they’re taking money and not doing things for the cause.
Have you been able to link the money being made from those records to any kind of illegal activities?
(Declines to comment).
How many major recording companies are there?
Three or four. You go on the Internet and just put in “white power music” and you’ll get all three of them.
Are they located in certain states?
Pretty much right across the country.
We keep hearing how the election of President Obama has impacted recruiting. Has it?
It’s the first African American president. And that, common sense wise , would say it may incense these guys who are actually already involved. In some of their recruitment fliers they’ll mention having a black president. I don’t think it has been as big a thing as I’ve heard people talk about it. It’s an issue, that’s for sure. If it were a Jewish president it would be an issue. It goes against their belief system. It’s definitely something that has fired them up a little bit. I don’t see it as being huge.You’ve got to take a look at it with a whole bunch of different factors ( like) the economy.
Have you got any sense that recruiting has picked up?
I think their attempts have picked up. Whether they have actually recruited people, it’s really too early to tell.
How has the economy played into this?
Things like being out of work, having more time on your hands, less money on your hands, your hatred toward the government — those type of things tend to increase (hatred) as the economy goes up and down. If you have money coming in and you’re happy about everything going on, then you’re probably less likely to be a hater. If you’re sitting back and you have no job, the economy and loss of work will translate into family issues. It’s a bunch of issues that come together.
Obviously this is a terrible economy. Have you seen the impact here or it just hard to gage?
It’s still early on in this thing. You’re seeing an increase in recruitment efforts, whether those are successful or not…as the economy goes longer in a downturn, I think you’re going to see the recruitment being more successful just because people are angry at the government or angry at themselves more than anything else, but they blame everybody else. Guys who get involved in this stuff pretty much have pretty crappy lives. But they don’t take any responsibility for that crappy life that they have. They blame everybody else.
In terms of this area, West Virginia had a big white supremacist movement going. I was out at the Israeli embassy during the 2002 white supremacist march and I was talking to Billy Roper of the National Alliance. Is he still involved?
There’s still groups those guys are leading. Different groups around the country will always have people who want to be the leader. And he’s one of the guys who wants to be a leader of a group. As the old time leaders die, William Pierce passed away, Richard Butler passed away, new people try to come in and take over the leadership of these large groups. Usually their gene pool is a little bit shallower than the person before them. And the group may have problems because financially they can’t raise the money to keep it going, or they have infighting, that type of stuff.
Are they more militant or less militant than their predecessors?
I think some of the older guys had old school visions, more political in nature. And some of the newer guys who may have been part of skinhead groups are more violent fringe groups, they try to push their extremism. And a lot of times, the majority of people who are involved in these things may dislike a lot of things, (but) they’re not willing to take it to a point of actual violence. The new leadership may be more violent leaders but don’t always get the number of people behind them. What we really worry about in this type of environment is — not the guys who want to stand on the courthouse steps and use their First Amendment rights to say things that you and I may not agree with– but the fringe of the fringe, the lone wolf or the person who has a couple people. That is much more difficult to track. They don’t have websites. They don’t have all these different things. That’s the person who’s going to commit criminal acts that we’re interested in. The other people, they have their right to hate.
How does the FBI deal with that?
A lot of times the people in their own community will see that someone has gone off the beaten path to a more extreme thing. And they may call in to the FBI or notify local police. They don’t want to see it happen. There’s people in the movement because they can make money doing it… record companies and all that stuff, it’s just a money making venture for a lot of them. If it goes beyond that, I don’t think they want to see it happen . It’s only going to hurt their movement or their cause if somebody does something.
The question is, should we be afraid of these groups?
We should always be vigilant. Timothy McVeigh, as an example, was a guy who was not completely linked up to any great organizations when he committed the bombing in Oklahoma City. Should a person like that be on our radar screen? Yeah.
Was there somewhat of a peeling back by these groups after Sept. 11?
After Sept. 11, on the Internet, there were a lot of writings that people involved in these groups put on supporting the Sept. 11 attacks. They’re anti-government and it was an attack on the United States. Some of the extremists within the extreme, felt almost a victory that an attack was played out. It’s clear on the Internet by some of their writings that they felt an attack on New York was an attack on the United States and the Jewish population. They liked that.
What about their Anti-Arab mentality?
It’s not just anti-Arab, it’s anti-anything but them.
Did that attack help in their recruiting or did it hurt their recruiting?
I think after 9/11 people of all types in the United States came together and that included even some of the people that were on the fringe of the extremist. But as everything changes, things change back.
How long did it take for there to be a shift again, where they said ‘ok we can hate the government again’?
Probably as long it took you and I to stop waiving at each other at the gas station and saying hello. As that goes , so does the extremist. Everybody after 9/11 was stopping and saying hello to people at the gas station, people were nodding and now it’s back to ‘I’m getting my gas and putting it in my car, I’m not going to say hello to anybody’.
How porous are these organizations? Is it easy to infiltrate? Is it easy to get informants?
That’s our job.Whether it be organized crime or terrorist organizations or domestic terrorist organizations here, international overseas, that’s our jobs to find the weaknesses, that’s what we do.
How about the Internet, how are seeing that being used for recruiting?
The Internet is the number one way that anybody does anything for a small business, whether it be for good or for bad. It’s the same thing for these guys. You can be the general for the ex-militia and it appears that you have dozens of, it not hundreds of members, but really you’re in your mother’s basement on your computer. It’s a way that they’re able to appear that there’s more of them than there actually are.
Where’s the limit on the Internet? Have some of them crossed the limit?
Sure. It’s a First Amendment limit. You can go pretty far with it. But they’ll definitely cross the line with threats against people. Small numbers will do that.
Are you able to take legal action once they cross that line?
If we’re made aware of the threat. Who ever receives the threat will notify the police or FBI. And then , as long as the attorneys, whether it be state attorneys or U.S. Attorneys, see the prosecution as viable, it will go forward.
Have you had any cases in this division here in the white supremacist community?
Yeah, we have.
Are you able to cite a particular case?
Because they haven’t been adjudicated?
What are the general activities that you see these days? Are there monthly meetings? Regular marches?
You remember when we were having all those marches? That was because they had a leadership that pushed that type of stuff. That’s gone. The National Socialist Movement came in March, they had 40 to 50 people show up here. Not any huge numbers. We haven’t seen the large demonstrations. I think the lack of leadership has a lot to do with it. Some of these guys, who become leaders of these groups are pretty good talkers, that’s how they get people to join up. And if you have somebody who can’t sit down and inspire people to join a hate group, then you have less ability to have large numbers to show up at rallies.
Do you still have groups that have monthly meetings?
That’s generally how these groups operate. We’re not interested in the monthly meeting, the rally on the courthouse steps, that’s First Amendment and really we’re not interested in it. We’re interested in the guy who stops going to the monthly meetings because all they’re doing is talking. And he wants to go out and do more. That’s the guy that comes up on our radar.
Are there guys that you’re aware of on the fringe that are raising red flags?
I’m not getting into any.. we wouldn’t have a job if there weren’t people on the fringe that we are concerned about. Their numbers are much smaller than the persons who are much more involved in the movement itself.
What about women? Is it more open to women these days?
These guys don’t want women in their organization, but they’ve got organizations for women. Like auxiliary membership. It’s always been that way. The majority of these guys, they’re not the brightest individuals in the world, so they’re probably much more chauvinistic. These guys are not very open minded obviously, so women are not treated as equals. I don’t know any who are in leadership roles. Women in the white power movement pretty much have a second seat, it hasn’t changed really.
In terms of odds alliances. It really struck me as particularly odd in 2002 when the white supremacists were protesting in front of the Israeli embassy in Washington and I remember one of the chants “Freedom for Palestine, a Rope for Every Finklestein”. And I just found it very odd. And I know the Palestinians found it very odd.
The baseline is anything anti-Israel, anti-Jewish, is the main theme of the majority of these organizations. If Israel comes into play or the Jewish community comes into play, these guys are going to be against it. And if there’s somebody who’s against the Israeli state, they’re going to be supportive of them in some manner because ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ to the point where we’ll make these chants. The lesser of the two evils in their mind is the Palestinians, so they’ll use that, plus they know it angers the Israelis at the Israeli embassy that these guys are outside, a bunch of skinheads sitting there screaming pro-Palestinian stuff.
Is there any form of alliance or communication with the white supremacist groups?
I think the Internet is the form of communication. All these groups have websites. If you want to contact them they can be contacted. If you’re a kid in some location and you don’t have a group there, you can go on line and contact that group.
Are there any new groups in the last few years that have popped up?
There’s always new groups. They splinter.
Does that happen a lot?
It happens constantly. They constantly are having infighting which causes new groups to spring up.
Is a lot of it a conflict over who should be in power or theory over who we should hate or how much we should hate?
I think in the old days, with the guys like George Lincoln Rockwell and William Pierce there may have been a lot more discussion and falling out over theory. With these knuckleheads now of days it’s a lot more about money issues, who’s sleeping with whose wife; all the things that come along with just ignorant leadership. That’s why they split up and start new groups. You don’t have to get a charter to start a new group. I can just go and call myself “Big Bald White Guy Group” and if anybody wants to join, there you go.
As far as groups, we know they hate the blacks, the Jews, the Asians. Is it basically the oldies but goodies?
It really comes down to anybody who’s not them. Gays are a target of these guys. Blacks are a target. Asians are a target. And I say a target, in that they’re the ones they don’t like. Anybody who’s not a white guy. In all honesty, a percentage of these guys, and they’ll do it themselves, within the groups, where they track back, and they go back a very short distance back and find out these (members) may not be all that white either. And that starts infighting between them that someone in the group may have other blood in them.
To Read More About Hate Groups Go to the Southern Poverty Law Center website