A kinder, gentler militia?

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, fringe militia organizations are recasting themselves as neighborhood watch groups. But old ways die hard.

Salon/July 4, 2002
By Dan Laidman

Kalispell, Mont. -- It was a small, obscure militia called Project 7, and according to local investigators, its members were stockpiling weapons and plotting mass murder as part of a plan to make Flathead County, Mont., the flash point for world revolution.

First, they would murder local police, judges and prosecutors. When the National Guard came in, they would kill as many troops as they could. When the U.S. government turned to NATO for help, they would take up arms against the forces of the New World Order.

When the alleged plot was discovered and David Burgert, a 38-year-old ex-Marine who owns a sports rental business, was arrested as the mastermind in February, many Montanans were exasperated that their state was in the news yet again as a haven of violent extremists and far-right paranoia. But what set the Project 7 case apart was the angry response from others in the self-styled patriot movement.

"This guy Burgert in Kalispell, this guy is just a miscreant, a little weenie evildoer," says militia icon James "Bo" Gritz, a former Green Beret. "People who know him say that he's just a talker, but Tim McVeigh might have been a talker .. If they're gonna talk like they're gonna break the law, it's like the Montana Freemen were putting up reward posters for public officials, 'Wanted Dead or Alive.' By gosh, you can't do that."

Though in decline since the deadly Oklahoma City terrorist bombing in April 1995, militias have been enjoying a quiet upsurge since Sept. 11. While they have tried in recent years to reposition themselves as a force on local political and environmental issues, militia leaders say the attacks and the Bush administration's war on terrorism have created a new audience for their worldview and new customers for their security training and survival gear.

"Our role, I think, has been more clearly defined now with the threat of foreign terrorism," says Norm Olson, who founded the Michigan Militia, one of the nation's largest, in 1994.

Militia watchdog groups agree that Sept. 11 led to an increase in such activity. "I do believe there's an upswing in interest in militia and anti-government groups," says Brian Goldberg, Pacific Northwest regional director for the Anti-Defamation League. "Whether that translates into an upswing in action we're still ascertaining." With citizens wondering after Sept. 11 if the government is capable of protecting them, Goldberg says, the militias may be emerging from their post-Oklahoma City exile to assume a revised role.

Exactly what that role will be is, as yet, uncertain. Some of the bigger, old-line militias have shifted their focus since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They're focused more on battling terrorism, and less on warring with their own government. But they still harbor deep suspicion for the United Nations, the U.S. government and various suspected agents of the New World Order -- suspicions compounded by the new intelligence-gathering powers given to the FBI and CIA.

Other groups, however, are marketing themselves almost as neighborhood-watch organizations -- opposed to violence, open to all, even willing in some cases to work with the federal government. But coming at such a sensitive time, leaders fear that the Project 7 bust was a setback in the effort to mainstream the militias.

Some who track the groups say the shift may be genuine, or at least partly so. "The central theme of the militia movement had been that the government had been stolen by secret elites and needed to be cleaned up," says Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates, a nonprofit organization in Boston that studies right-wing groups. "But a lot of these folks come out of a military background, and I think there was a conflicting set of loyalties after 9/11. For some militia leaders, this attack on U.S. soil so horrified them that they shifted."

That analysis leaves Montana state Sen. Ken Toole, program director of the Montana Human Rights Network, skeptical. In his view, Project 7's alleged assassination plot shows how conspiracy theories still permeate the militia movement -- and how their paranoid threats can turn real. Like others here, he is skeptical about the militia leaders who disavow Burgert and wonders whether the Project 7 leader was in fact conspiring with similar groups in other Montana counties.

"In terms of their worldview -- the U.N., the international conspiracies -- they're very closely aligned," Toole says. Burgert's "idea that they were going to kill a few cops, then kill a few national guardsmen, then have the Chinese army come over from Canada -- all of that is stuff you read pretty regularly in the militia propaganda mill."

Indeed, the movement's own statements reveal their internal contradictions. The Michigan Militia has tried to reject the violent, racist, homophobic image that used to distinguish the movement. Visitors to its Web site are greeted by a message proclaiming that the militia doesn't care "what race you are, what ethnic group you belong to, what your sex or gender is, what your sexual preference is, what your political beliefs are, or what your religious beliefs (or non-beliefs) are."

Olson echoes the sentiment. But when asked how the homeland-defense program is different from the old training, he replies: "We used to shoot at U.N. flags, but now we shoot at Middle Eastern rag-head terrorists."

The comment suggests that, even as they try to reinvent themselves, some of the militia groups maintain the character that makes outsiders uneasy.

The Project 7 drama unfolded against a backdrop of snowcapped peaks and alpine meadows not far from Glacier National Park. It's a landscape that inspires millions of tourists every year, and their spending here is the backbone of the local economy. The landscape also has inspired a fierce local fight over government land-use policy. To understand the local political climate, it is essential to listen to the popular talk show of radio station owner John Stokes, Toole's arch-nemesis. Stokes is a vigorous proponent of the "wise use" environmental movement -- which counts timber and mining interests, off-road vehicle users and others among its chief supporters -- and he has no patience for federal land rules. Stokes frequently refers to environmentalists as the "Fourth Reich," and with former militia leader J.J. Johnson, he recently burned a 12-foot green swastika. Dave Burgert occasionally called in to Stokes' show.

Project 56 is one of the new breed of militia groups finding fertile conditions in that landscape. Members of Project 56 say they had never heard of Burgert or his group until the arrest. There are parallels, though: Just as the "7" in Project 7 represents the Montana license plate code for Flathead County, 56 stands for Lincoln County. Founded in 2000, the group is headquartered in Libby, an old mining town recently designated a federal Superfund site.

Project 56 considers itself to be a conservative government watchdog group. Its mission statement says it opposes racism, atheism, socialism, the New World Order and the United Nations, while supporting God, the Constitution, free enterprise and local self-government. Using relatively conventional methods, members have tried unsuccessfully to get their county declared a U.N.-free zone and to pass a "home rule" ordinance that would give local government supremacy over the federal government in some land-use disputes.

The group's meetings have drawn up to 40 people, a broad blue-collar assortment that includes many with military and police backgrounds. In an effort to show that it is harmless, the group welcomes law enforcement officials and journalists to its meetings. "We have an open-door policy," says member Ken Short, himself a former cop.

That's a dramatic departure from the militias of just a decade ago. The roots of the modern militia movement go back at least to the 1970s and 1980s, to the survivalist movement and the Posse Comitatus organization whose adherents sometimes financed extremist political activity with crime. Gun-control legislation, world-trade treaties and talk of a New World Order during the administration of President George Bush I fanned the populist paranoia that often drives the groups. But when federal agents botched standoffs at Ruby Ridge and Waco -- with deadly results -- interest in the militia movement soared.

Early leaders included white supremacists like Louis Beam of Texas, who advocated a system of small militia "cells" across the country. By 1994, the movement included some racists and anti-Semites but also a large number of less extreme Americans concerned about issues like gun control, alienated by the Clinton administration and seduced by the militia's dark warnings of a world government conspiracy.

Timothy McVeigh never joined a militia, but he traveled along the fringes of the self-styled patriot movement. After he helped detonate the bomb outside the Oklahoma City federal building -- killing 168 people and injuring more than 500 others -- the militias were discredited and vilified in public opinion and pushed back to the fringe.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors militias, the "patriot" movement peaked in 1996 with 858 groups across the country. By 2000, the number had fallen to 194, of which 72 were militias.

Several are in Montana counties, and law enforcement officials here say that, Project 7 notwithstanding, there's hope for productive relations with some of them. "There are other militia groups here in Flathead that are law-abiding, good citizens," says Sheriff Dupont. "They feel if there ever comes a time when the local police or National Guard need help, they'd be there."

The Project 7 bust came after a bizarre series of events centered around Burgert, a man well-known locally for his conflicts with law enforcement. Dupont has said that Burgert held a grudge after the sheriff kept him off a county search-and-rescue team because of his past criminal record.

Burgert, 38, was arrested in 2001 for assaulting a peace officer. At the end of last year he had another run-in with police in which he was charged with obstruction and resisting arrest; he was found guilty in connection with that case in late June. Burgert's own account of the incident, circulated on some Web sites, claimed police tortured him. While he was out on bail in January, Burgert's wife reported him missing. Word traveled in militia circles that police had killed him, while investigators suspected he faked his own death.

In February, an informant's tip led Dupont's deputies to Burgert, and he was arrested only after a seven-hour standoff in the woods. A search of several sites uncovered more than 30 weapons, over 30,000 rounds of ammunition and survival gear. Evidence gleaned from an informant and from dossiers containing personal information about more than 26 local officials -- including Dupont -- formed the basis for the alleged assassination plot.

At most, investigators say, Project 7 had 10 members. Deputies also arrested Tracy Brockway, a friend of Burgert's, accusing her of gathering information on potential targets through her job as a cleaning woman for the city of Whitefish police department. She pleaded guilty in May to obstructing justice by harboring Burgert. Shortly after he was arrested, Dupont said he suspected that other members were at large and potentially dangerous, but no further arrests have been made.

Burgert, in a jailhouse interview with the Daily Interlake here, denied there was ever a plot to kill anyone. His attorney, Don Vernay of Kalispell, predicted to Salon that the federal government won't have the evidence to file formal charges based on the conspiracy allegations.

"Every witness I've interviewed says it's a joke," Vernay says. "That's the most overblown story that's hit the media in I don't know how long."

Militia leaders in Montana and nationwide have tried to distance themselves from Project 7 and the attendant media storm. The talk of guns and death lists clearly goes against the image of kinder, gentler militias they're working to cultivate.

Gritz, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran, has considerable cachet in the patriot movement. He achieved fame in the 1980s for leading unsuccessful forays into Vietnam in search of prisoners of war. In the early 1990s, he helped persuade white supremacist Randy Weaver to leave his cabin at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, after an 11-day standoff left a federal marshal and Weaver's wife and son dead. A few years later, he claimed credit for helping negotiate an end to the standoff between federal agents and the Montana Freemen.

In the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he says, militias should be rushing to help the federal government -- in spite of their mistrust. And, he says, the militia movement based on government accountability, God and the Second Amendment needs to be wary of the violent racists who would corrupt it.

"Rather than putting face paint all over yourself and camouflage and assault rifles, acting like you're shooting the FBI and Jews and whatever," citizens' groups should instead "be prepared in the event of national emergencies while authorities are overtaxed," Gritz says.

In Michigan, militia groups are going a step further: They've offered the government their expertise in training domestic anti-terrorist forces.

Michigan was a hotbed of militia activity in the early 1990s. It was there, in fact, that McVeigh lived for a time with accomplice Terry Nichols. At one point, the Michigan Militia purportedly had 6,000 members, making it the country's largest citizen militia. But it fell into disarray after the Oklahoma City bombing. Norm Olson formed a new militia group in Northern Michigan in the late 1990s; lack of interest forced him to deactivate it last July.

After Sept. 11, militia groups in Michigan met to discuss their response to the terrorist attacks. When the Justice Department did not respond to their formal offer to provide anti-terrorist training, they decided to start the training on their own. According to the militia's online field reports, recent training sessions have attracted several dozen participants.

They offer a range of expertise -- from firearms and gas masks to hostage rescue and emergency medical support. "We don't call them firearms anymore," Olson says. "We call them anti-terrorist resources."

However much they change, though, militia groups maintain their roots -- and perhaps no person embodies that more than John Trochmann, who lives about three hours west of Flathead County in the little town of Noxon.

Trochmann is a legend as the hard-line leader of the Militia of Montana; he also runs Project 35, which is focused on environmental and land-use issues in Sanders County. Trochmann founded the group after hearing about Project 56 in Lincoln County.

Since Sept. 11, members of the Militia of Montana have been busy. For the first few months after the attacks, militia officials say, their survival-gear was selling briskly -- gas masks, chemical suits, anti-radiation potassium tablets -- though they decline to release sales figures. And Trochmann has been invited to speak about global events to groups and at preparedness expos in several states.

At home in Sanders County, he says, militia members have been doing their part to help with homeland security, patrolling the Noxon Dam and hydroelectric power facility.

"We're all in this together," Trochmann says. "Please don't believe what the mainstream media's been saying about us. We have friends who work at the dam, we have friends who live downstream and we have a light switch, too."

County Sheriff Gene Arnold says he has been in contact with Trochmann, and he appreciates the militia's informal patrols. "If they're watchdogs, I think that's great," Arnold says. "If they see anything, I expect that to be reported so we can get it to the proper authorities."

And while he has had differences with the militia in the past ,Arnold says, things have been quiet and even congenial lately, and as long as the groups respect the law and do not try to force an anti-government agenda, coexistence and cooperation are possible.

Though Burgert claimed past membership in the state militia, Trochmann says he did not know Project 7 existed until Sheriff Dupont told him about it in mid-February. And while he credits Dupont for making the arrests "without spilling blood," he has a quick, barbed response to suggestions that there may have been a broader conspiracy.

"We have to remember that the prosecution throws as much manure at the wall as they can to see if it'll stick," he says. "That's just par for the course."

And yet, Trochmann is evidence that even as the militias try to soften their image and assert new local influence, the old militia character that combines high-proof paranoia with intense hostility for the federal government and the United Nations won't die easily. While his Project 35 offers itself as a mainstream civic group, his Militia of Montana newsletter, Taking Aim, refers to politicians in its latest issue as "treasonous bastards."

"One bullet at a time," it warns, "that's how you'll get our guns."

Earlier this year, Taking Aim began a three-part series on Sept. 11. A fundamental theory -- conveyed in stories, first-person accounts, photos and charts -- is that the twin towers of the World Trade Center were brought down not by fuel-laden jetliners, but by internal bombs.

"We believe this [the skyjacking and terrorist attack] is a fantasy they want us to believe," Trochmann says. "We believe wholeheartedly these towers were blown up."

The upcoming series finale will explore the "Arab connection {or lack thereof}," according to one of Trochmann's notes in the latest issue. If al-Qaida didn't attack the towers and the Pentagon, who did? Trochmann insinuates that the U.S. government was involved.

He points to the USA PATRIOT act and other measures that have expanded the federal government's power to spy on its citizens. The militias have been enduring such scrutiny for years, he says, and so it's no surprise that the government should extend its reach after Sept. 11. He cites a statement he has just received from a source he describes as a retired CIA agent, warning that Islamic militancy and the "war on terrorism" will be used as a straw man to take away basic American rights.

"Who gains from this terror?" Trochmann asks. "That's how you have to analyze a crime."

Olson, in Michigan, is similarly skeptical. "There's something else going on here, and terrorism is simply a cover story to get something else done," he says. "My basic theory is that this is a wonderful way to rebuild the CIA and the FBI and the military after it was decimated by our friend Bill Clinton."

But in Olson's view, Bush is no better. He rebukes Bush for not talking enough about abortion and for being "a globalist like his daddy." The Michigan militia's earlier offers of support for the government aren't the same as supporting the government, he insists. In fact, he admits his group has an ulterior motive.

"We want to build ourselves up and not invite federal intrusion," Olson says. "And by calling it a civilian anti-terrorist force, the American people will nod their heads and appreciate what we're doing and maybe the feds will stay away from us while we try to defend ourselves against whatever the federal government is up to, which I believe is nothing less than the creation of a police state."

If fear of terrorism helps bring in new members, he concedes, "I'll go ahead and piggyback that as long as it benefits us."

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