Are right-wing hate groups behind anthrax terror?

Nobody knows, because the Justice Department isn't investigating violent militants on the right the way it's monitoring Muslims, critics say.

Published November 23, 2001 12:54AM (EST)

With more than 1,100 people, most of them Arabs or Muslims, detained by the federal government in connection with the Sept. 11 terror attacks, some analysts have begun to wonder whether another suspected threat in our midst -- right wing militant groups that have either threatened or carried out terror attacks -- is being dealt with as harshly, especially as evidence mounts that the deadly anthrax letters sent to Democrats and the media last month are the work of domestic terrorists.

The answer is apparently no. Although no one can say with certainty who's being investigated in the anthrax investigation, and the Justice Department did not return repeated calls for comment, watchers of right-wing hate groups say there's been no dragnet pulling in the members of militant antiabortion, white supremacist, Christian right or militia groups for questioning, let alone detention.

Abortion providers in particular have been calling on Attorney General John Ashcroft to condemn antiabortion terrorists who have sent anthrax hoax letters to clinics -- a form of terror that began a few years ago and returned in the wake of the deadly anthrax letters sent last month. But so far he has not.

Ashcroft's opponents say the Justice Department's reluctance to directly take on right-wing groups confirms what they've been saying all along: that the conservative attorney general, a staunch abortion opponent and friend of the Christian right, is unable or unwilling to separate his personal beliefs from his responsibilities as the nation's chief law enforcement officer.

One of those activists is Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Political Research Associates in Boston. Berlet has monitored right-wing activity in the United States, and was a vocal opponent of Ashcroft's appointment earlier this year. Salon spoke with Berlet via telephone Wednesday.

What's your assessment of the Justice Department's investigation into the anthrax letters?

Well, I suspect that it is a common response of any bureaucracy that when an agency has failed to carry out its mission, it calls for new laws. By calling for new laws it masks the fact that they failed to apply the laws already at their disposal.

Now, they are going completely overboard in rounding up people for whom there's no evidence whatsoever that there's criminal activity, in a racist way. But clearly people ... in the militia movement who called for an armed march to arrest and hang the "traitors" in Washington -- this is back in the mid-'90s, when the militia movement was getting started -- there's an example of somebody who might have been arrested [but wasn't.].

They then issue -- I think way too prematurely -- this profile of a lone disgruntled angry person sitting in some basement cooking up anthrax. Which is a possibility, I'm not saying I know who's doing it, but I think it was way too early to issue that kind of profile. There's still a good argument to be made for both foreign and domestic extreme-right terrorists. This failure to understand the politics and the dynamics of these types of movements continues to hamper the ability of the Justice Department and other federal agencies to actually get a handle on what's going on and how to stop it.

Has there been a disconnect between the way the Justice Department is dealing with these alleged Arab terrorism suspects who may have connections to al-Qaida and possible domestic terrorism suspects?

Well, lets divide the domestic groups into three sections. You have the Christian right, the patriot/militia movement and then the extreme right, where you find neo-Nazis, the Klan, and so on.

You look at the Christian right. Clearly a tiny wing of the Christian right has already claimed credit for the anthrax hoax letters. That's the Army of God. Excuse me, but this has been going on for years. Where was the Justice Department? Why has Ashcroft refused to talk about those acts of terrorism against clinics? The answer of course is because his constituency is the Christian right, so he doesn't want to offend them.

Then there's the militia/patriot movement. I don't like them as a movement, but most of them are not criminals. They obviously have the possibility of getting into confrontations with the police because of their expectation of government repression around the corner, but they don't really have a history of leading attacks.

Then, look at the extreme right. Well, in fact, most people in the extreme right have a shared ideology with Islamic supremacists and Arab supremacists. You are much more likely to find people who agree with the destruction of all existing nation-states and replacing them with racially or religiously pure regimes, which is the plan of al-Qaida, in the U.S. extreme right than in American Arab and American Muslim communities.

What about the connections between domestic extreme right-wing groups and extreme right-wing groups overseas?

These meetings have been going on for 15 years. Warren Kinsella wrote about them in "Web of Hate," looking at Canadians who went. I actually have a whole Web page up that talks about this stuff now. This is the idea of the "Third Position": What the extreme right in the U.S., basically the fascist right, has in common with both ultra-right Islamic supremacists and ultra-right Arab supremacists is that they all believe in overthrowing all existing nation-states, they all hate the United States as the major architect of a global mass culture and politics and as a bully, and they all hate Jews. They all have this anti-Semitic caricature of Jewish power and how Jews control the United States. We know that they trade ideas, and trade literature, and that they visit each other. So I'm thinking maybe this is a more interesting lead, without claiming to have any knowledge one way or the other. I would not rule them out, is what I'm saying.

Did the emergence of the Leahy letter -- to a second Democrat -- change your perspective on the anthrax attacks?

I think that adds a little more weight to the domestic argument. Although in the right wing in the United States, Leahy is sometimes seen in a positive light because of his concern for civil liberties. But he is often caricatured as an enemy of the people -- as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, he's seen, perhaps wrongly, as someone who is responsible for the erosion of civil liberties. It really depends on what kind of right-wing ideology you subscribe to. I've seen people praise him and people attack him as one of those leading Democrats who was behind the Clinton/Reno Gestapo in their world view.

Does your study of right-wing extremists give you any clue as to whether and why they might want to target Daschle and Leahy specifically?

Well, let's look at all the letters that we know exist that had live anthrax. They all go to either media or Democrats. Well, OK, what have we just been through in the United States? A gigantic war against liberal media and liberal Democrats culminating in the impeachment of a president. How long ago did this happen? There are still people in the extreme right, but also in the Christian right and in the patriot/militia movement, who see leading Democrats and liberal media as the cancer eating away at the American body politic.

Again, I'm not saying I know, but I wouldn't close the door yet to these folks because there are some logical arguments that can be made that connect those dots. I'm actually quite surprised that people haven't made that connection since the right wing has been making it in a shrill kind of way for several decades -- that there's a connection between the liberal media and liberal Democrats and the destruction of the American way of life.

To your knowledge has there been any roundup or increased investigation of any groups or individuals in any of these three categories?

Well, I do know that the Justice Department and federal agencies have reached out to draw from various researchers that have studied all three sectors of the right, but one never knows how that gets filtered up into the decision-making process of how to lead the investigation.

Have you had any contact with any investigators?

It would certainly be unwise for anyone who has researched the right to discuss that.

Do you expect a louder drum beat calling on the Justice Department to focus on some of these domestic right-wing groups?

Oh, I hear the drums, I just don't hear the response. For example, there are a number of groups who have called on Ashcroft to speak out against the anthrax hoax letters, and I hope he does. But this is a situation that's been going on for years. Under Reno's Justice Department, there was a separate task force looking at attacks on clinics. It may have been ad hoc, it may have been informal, but there was in fact a phone number you could call. That vanished as soon as Ashcroft took office. The ability of people who defend clinics to reach into the Justice Department for some kind of decision or information or response evaporated very quickly after he took office.

Do you think that this connection between Ashcroft and some of the Christian right groups called into question his ability to prosecute this case and lead this investigation?

Yeah. I objected to his appointment on those very grounds: that he has a history of not being evenhanded when it comes to the Christian Right. I think the issue is quite strong. He has demonstrated both before and after his appointment an inability to separate his personal convictions from his public responsibility.

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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