The quiet fall of an American terrorist

In late 2001, antiabortion fanatic Clayton Waagner used packets of bogus anthrax to shut down scores of clinics nationwide. When he was convicted last week, the press was notably absent.

Topics: George W. Bush, Abortion,

Only a couple of years ago, Clayton Waagner was one of three extreme-right American terrorists on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list, a self-styled avenging angel of the unborn. In the autumn of 2001, at the apex of national fear about terrorist strikes and deadly anthrax attacks, he mailed hundreds of envelopes stuffed with white powder and threatening letters to abortion clinics and reproductive rights organizations — all in the name of the antiabortion Army of God. Doctors, staffers, clients and their families were terrified, and hundreds of clinics were shut down. That made Clayton Waagner a celebrity, of sorts, and to some, a hero.

Waagner lost his spot atop the 10 Most Wanted lists when an alert Kinko’s clerk outside of Cincinnati recognized him from a wanted poster, and in a federal courtroom in Philadelphia last week, he was convicted of threatening the use of weapons of mass destruction and other federal charges, more than 50 counts in all. The two-week trial was remarkable not so much for its verdict as for the near-complete lack of media attention that it attracted. Perhaps the conclusion was too anticlimactic, a foregone conclusion. Or perhaps it was because Attorney General John Ashcroft’s prosecutors sought to make the trial not about abortion, but about “anthrax hoaxes.” In a news culture obsessed with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and overseas terror threats, few reporters were there for the denouement.

Though he now faces a possible sentence of life in prison, Waagner went down without a word of regret or remorse. Acting as his own attorney, he said in his closing argument to the jury that he was “tickled” that people were terrorized by the anthrax threats. After the verdict was read, he shook the prosecutors’ hands and then told the judge: “It was fun.” The feds want to talk with him further about the violent antiabortion underground, but he told FBI agent James Fitzgerald, who took his original confession: “I’m still not going to cooperate.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Waagner’s story is already disappearing into the deep shadows still cast by Sept. 11, 2001. But he was very much a part of that story, and the fear he created, amplified in that climate of terror, still reverberates through the culture.

Waagner was in federal custody awaiting sentencing on federal weapons and stolen vehicle charges — none related to antiabortion activities — when he made a dramatic escape from federal custody in February 2001. On the lam, he declared himself to be “God’s warrior” and a “terrorist” in a manifesto published on the Army of God Web site. He threatened to kill as many abortion providers as he could. He robbed banks, bought guns and computers, stalked clinics, and prepared for war against abortion.

He never fired a shot, but he contributed to the terrorization of the nation at its lowest moment in recent history. He mailed or FedEx’d some 550 envelopes containing white powder to abortion rights organizations and clinics in the name of the Army of God. “You have been exposed to anthrax,” each letter announced. “We are going to kill all of you. From the Army of God, Virginia Dare Chapter.”

Waagner’s threatening packages arrived during the same period when real anthrax attacks on media outlets and Congress killed five people. Even Ashcroft, a resolute abortion opponent, called Waagner a terrorist. The entire nation was on edge, fearful of the threat of all forms of terrorism. Indeed, in response to some of Waagner’s missives, whole city blocks were evacuated. People were stripped and hosed down with Clorox by hazmat teams in protective spacesuits.

Although the victims of the anthrax threats testified at Waagner’s trial, the significance of their experience was nowhere to be seen in the press coverage. On the same day that the victims testified, the news media’s angle du jour was that Waagner had mistakenly sent one powder packet to a Pennsylvania antiabortion crisis pregnancy center. While this made Waagner look foolish, unreported were the extraordinary horrors of Waagner’s acts of terror around the country. The trivialization of Waagner’s crimes by inattention and the depiction of him as a buffoon concerns Ann Glazier, director of clinic security at Planned Parenthood Federation of America for the past 10 years.

“Some of those women [who received the anthrax threats] are still terrified,” she told Salon. “They cannot talk about this without breaking into tears and shaking. So this idea that, this is a guy who sort of did this as a joke or a lark is enraging to people like me. You can look at this and see the damage.”

Glazier knows more stories of the horror’s impact than probably anyone, and they spill out over the phone line one by one. One wave of Waagner’s mailing was infused with a chemical that sets off false positives in tests for anthrax. It took the Centers for Disease Control 10-12 hours to figure it out. Glazier spent many of those hours on the phone with the terrified.

“There was no way you could treat this as anything other than the real thing,” she said. “There were women who were forced to disrobe in front of complete strangers. They were given showers and made to stand out in the cold. A hazmat team brought one woman to the hospital where the E.R. person screamed at her — ‘You contaminated the entire hospital!’ Another woman took off her clothes and was given a lab coat. She went to the hospital where she was decontaminated. But when she got to her car, she realized that all of her keys, her money, her identification, were locked up with her contaminated clothes in the hospital … Lots of people had to go through the same thing. It was terrifying and it still terrifies them.”

Waagner kept the feds on the run and abortion providers on edge for 10 months until his capture in December 2001.

Originally, Waagner wanted to use his trial as an international media stage to put abortion on trial. He planned to use the “necessity defense,” which is the argument that sometimes the crime needed to be committed to stop a different or greater crime. Waagner initially argued that if he committed any crimes, they were intended to prevent the murder of the unborn. While the necessity defense has been used successfully by women who’ve been subjected to domestic violence and, in fear of their lives, killed their husbands, no judge has ever allowed it as a defense in a case involving crimes against abortion providers. Waagner’s case proved to be no exception.

In fact, the Bush administration’s Department of Justice wanted to make certain that Waagner’s trial was not going to be about abortion. He was bitterly disappointed that he was not allowed to use the necessity defense, and made a point of getting the judge to reassure him that he could appeal partly on the court’s denial. Acting as his own attorney, Waagner tried to raise his issues at every turn. And while he got in his licks, “The prosecution made it their business to make sure that he was not able to do that,” Glazier said. “They were totally conscious that he was going to try to go there every single minute. And he did. Prosecutors always were on their feet in a flash. And he got overruled every time.”

The Department of Justice wanted to try the case narrowly on the anthrax attacks and on using the Internet to make threats. Prosecutors did everything they could to keep information about Waagner’s previous incarceration, his escape and his life on the lam out of the trial. At one point, Glazier noted, prosecutors showed the jurors a photograph of the trunk of the Mercedes Benz Waagner was driving when he was captured. The picture showed the printer he used to make the letters he mailed with the anthrax threats. But it was cropped so as not to show the case of shotgun shells that was also in the trunk.

Waagner didn’t do much to help himself during the trial. Neither did his witnesses. Waagner himself seemed torn between his pride in his career as a terrorist and maintaining the façade of innocence while acting as his own attorney. “It was as if he could not decide whether he was going to say he did it,” Glazier observed, “or whether he would hint that he was fronting for someone else. He kept going back and forth, and the jurors’ eyes were rolling around in their heads.”

“He repeatedly bragged that he had been the most wanted man in America and that he was a terrorist,” said Glazier, still incredulous about Waagner’s performance. “It was unbelievable.”

Clearly, Waagner was going to have a tough time convincing the jury of his innocence. He had given a two-hour taped confession to an FBI agent. He also made another taped confession, a bizarre episode reported by Salon at the time.

Just after Thanksgiving 2001, Waagner entered the Carrollton, Ga., home of antiabortion militant Neal Horsley, whom he supposedly tied up and held at gunpoint while confessing to the anthrax threats on tape. Horsley, best know for his notorious Nuremberg Files Web site (which crossed out the names of abortion-providing physicians after they were murdered), immediately put out the news about Waagner’s confession, and his claim to have a list of 42 clinic staff who would be killed if they did not resign their jobs. Horsley’s role and relationship to Waagner has been odd. He hyped Waagner’s mission on his Web sites, and presented him as Waagner presented himself — as a man sent by God on a mission to scare abortion providers out of business. He treated Waagner as capable of killing. This made Horsley a fan — but not, as it turned out, one who would be any help in court.

Waagner’s trial defense — for which he was unable to provide any corroboration — was that he lied to Horsley and to the FBI to throw the feds off of the scent and to “take the pressure off” other antiabortion activists.

On Horsley’s tape, played for the jury, Waagner described why he sent the packets of bogus anthrax to the clinics: “What I’ve been doing over the last nine months in a very orchestrated manner is to give those people a chance to quit. I want to demonstrate to them how truly vulnerable they are. I put anthrax in their face, or what they thought was anthrax … They have no security, none.”

Horsley was Waagner’s main defense witness, and under questioning by Waagner, Horsley talked about abortion and wept about abortion — but then maintained that he believed Waagner had mailed the anthrax threats and that he had “the capacity to do things nobody could imagine.” Looking at Waagner, he said: “You wanted to terrorize people so they would discontinue killing little babies.”

Although the drama was high, the media interest in the Waagner trial was low. There was little national coverage beyond the Associated Press. The newspapers of record, the New York Times and the Washington Post, gave the case little more than a passing mention. Observers such as Dallas Blanchard, a retired professor of sociology who has written several books on the antiabortion movement, think that Waagner’s conviction was “a foregone conclusion … [and] routine.” With “no potential dramatic disclosures,” he says, there were few elements of political soap opera to attract the press.

The news media may have been missing the forest for the trees. There was a time in 2001 when for the first time in history three of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted criminals were antiabortion domestic terrorists. But the past year has seen a series of victories by federal agents and prosecutors against the notorious trio. Before Waagner’s conviction, Eric Rudolph, the Olympic bombing and clinic bombing suspect, was captured; and James Kopp was tried and convicted for the 1998 sniper attack that killed Dr. Barnett Slepian, an abortion provider, inside of his home in suburban Buffalo, N.Y.

Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Political Research Associates, a progressive think tank near Boston, agrees that while the outcome was not in doubt, there was more to why the press stayed away in droves. “Once somebody claims a religious motivation for an act of terrorism,” he said, “most people, including reporters and editors, become unglued.” If Waagner had been a self-identified Muslim terrorist instead of a Christian terrorist, Berlet observed, “he’d have been lynched by now.” Indeed, while news reports invariably note that he is a self-described terrorist, and dutifully quote him as saying so, they also studiously avoid use of the word “Christian.”

“The notion of Christian terrorists is a place people don’t want to go,” Glazier agreed. “And the notion of there being more than one Christian terrorist is a place where people also don’t want to go.”

Reporters and editors often “fear to offend,” added Berlet. “But if it’s fair to say if we can see the religious motivations in the Taliban, we ought to be able to see them in Waagner or Eric Rudolph.” He notes that although Waagner and his associates in the Army of God “represent a tiny fraction of the wider Christian right, people don’t know how to make sense of it.” And reporters, he says, “walk away from it.”

Though Waagner’s crimes fiercely exploited the fears created by 9/11, Berlet says the press has tended to diminish the crimes. For example, he says, most of the stories use the term “anthrax hoax” to describe Waagner’s crimes. But “just because a terrorist threat turns out to be a hoax does not mean that it has no effect.”

Waagner has been closely linked to the violent, antiabortion Army of God. To this day the group hails him as a “Hero of the Faith” on its Web site, along with such antiabortion luminaries as Paul Hill, who was executed in Florida for murdering an abortion provider and a volunteer escort. He is known to have corresponded with Army of God leaders prior to his escape from prison. An allegedly autobiographical account of Waagner’s career as a terrorist is available on the AOG Web site and the proceeds go to Waagner’s wife. Titled “Fighting the Great American Holocaust,” the cover art is a self-portrait in which Waagner is wearing mirror-lensed glasses that reflect two figures in white hazmat suits at work before a Planned Parenthood sign.

“While an FBI Most Wanted Fugitive, I made my most effective attack on the abortion industry,” reads the account. “In October of 2001 I mailed fake anthrax to 500 abortion clinics. In November of 2001 I Federal Expressed another 300 fake anthrax letters. The white powder I used was harmless, but tested positive for anthrax.

“Most of the 580 abortion clinics I closed in 2001 remained closed for a week, resulting in 3,940 clinic closure days, and the disruption of nearly 20,000 scheduled abortions. According to abortion clinic numbers, 5,000 or more babies are alive today because of my act of ‘Domestic Terrorism.’

“I will spend the rest of my life in a federal prison. It seems a small price to pay.”

The frequent Web bouquets from the Army of God notwithstanding, Waagner received little personal support at his trial. Only the Rev. Michael Bray of nearby Bowie, Md., a convicted clinic bomber and the “chaplain” of the Army of God, attended. That contrasts starkly with the gatherings of AOG members in support of James Kopp in Buffalo earlier this year and the AOG vigils at the September execution of Paul Hill in Florida.

Ann Glazier thinks that the federal heat is just too great and people are keeping their distance. Not so long ago, she says, Army of God leaders carried themselves with a certain swagger that they could threaten people and clinics with impunity. But she thinks a turning point came in the run-up to Hill’s execution in September, when the Florida attorney general, two corrections officials, and the judge who sentenced Hill to death all received threatening letters containing bullets. “Suddenly it’s not so much fun to be a Christian terrorist in the Army of God anymore,” she observed.

That may be an augur for the future of the most violent wing of the antiabortion movement. Experts see that law enforcement’s view of terrorism — and its capacity for more organized response — has changed enormously. That makes it far more difficult for the violent wing of the antiabortion movement to operate.

Waagner is, in their view, an exception that proves the rule. Professor Blanchard, who taught in Pensacola, Fla., an epicenter of antiabortion attacks, thinks that while the violent element “is still there,” Waagner was an isolated entrepreneur who sought “a brief moment of fame” in exchange for “permanent security and having his most momentous decisions for the rest of his life being what flavor gum to chew.” As for the rest of the violent element, he says that they “went semi-underground under federal pressure” following the passage of the Federal Access to Clinic Entrances Act, and now “more and more resembled the militia’s ‘leaderless resistance.’”

Ellie Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, has a similar view. Law enforcement’s response to antiabortion violence has greatly improved, she says. She notes that there is “a more profound appreciation for how terrible terrorism can be and how it can destroy a society.” But “the investigative work that would lead you to the next one is falling short,” Smeal says. There are people still at large who “aided and abetted Kopp and Rudolph, and whoever is winding them up … The odds are we are not done with this, and we won’t be until the core that has been encouraging violence, itself unravels.”

“It’s not unlike al-Qaida,” she observed. “The 19 hijackers died but they certainly did not act alone. But so far, nobody higher up has been arrested.”

Did Waagner have help while he was on the lam? “Absolutely,” said Glazier. “There is no doubt in my mind.”

It is tempting to think or to believe that the worst of antiabortion terrorism is over. The capture of Waagner, Kopp and Rudolph certainly are triumphs of federal law enforcement in the age of terrorism. There have been no murders or major arsons or bombings this year. But windows have been shot out. There have been minor arsons. And anonymous threats to use of weapons of mass destruction against clinics and providers are practically routine. In 2002, according to statistics compiled by the National Abortion Federation, 23 clinics received anthrax threat in the mail. Before Waagner’s 2001 rampage, clinics reported 77 anthrax threats.

No one has been arrested in connection with any of these terrorist incidents before or since Clayton Waagner.

Frederick Clarkson has reported on the religious right for 15 years. He is the author of "Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy" (Common Courage Press, 1997).

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