Perspectives

Former FBI agent becomes vocal critic of bureau's lack of accountability

By Adrianne Appel | Last updated: Oct 24, 2007 - 2:28:00 PM

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BOSTON IPS/GIN - "I have peeked behind that curtain and what you find is an unholy mess," said Mike German, a former FBI agent who has grown critical of the secrecy and lack of accountability within the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

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The U.S. State Department shows that the number of terrorist attacks reached an all-time high in 2003. The number of attacks then tripled in 2004. Six years after President [George W.] Bush started the global war on terrorism, we are no safer than we were in 2001, despite the tremendous amount of funds spent and the loss of our civil liberties. And there is less security when you give up your liberty.
--Mike German,
former FBI agent

In the 1990s, German infiltrated white supremacist terrorist groups such as a racially motivated Los Angeles organization that set off bombs to intimidate and harm people of color and a militant neo-Nazi group in the state of Washington.

German left the FBI in 2004, after going public with evidence that the FBI's Tampa bureau had made illegal tape recordings of a group under investigation. German's superiors tried to hide the evidence of wrongdoing, rather than address it.

German -- a self-taught terrorism expert who works with Global Security, a Washington think tank, and with the American Civil Liberties Union -- is now is a vocal critic of the bureau and its entire national security operation.

In his book, "Thinking like a Terrorist -- Insights of a Former FBI Undercover Agent," German maintains that the illegal methods used by the FBI in its war against terrorism, such as torture and National Security Letters, pose a grave threat to U.S. democracy and liberty, as well as to true security.

IPS spoke with German in Boston, where he was speaking about civil liberties issues.

Inter Press Service (IPS): You were a special agent for 16 years and you spied on Americans -- how can you now say you fear the FBI is threatening American democracy?

MG (Mike German): It might seem strange that a former FBI agent could be a civil libertarian. But my actions, while secret, were not unaccountable. I worked on the criminal justice side of the FBI.

I relied on legal, constitutionally sound techniques to gather evidence against known criminals. I targeted only those members of a group who were known to be involved. At the end of the day, I knew I'd be in a courtroom and I'd be under cross-examination, and that the judge and jury would review my conduct.

On the national security side of the FBI there has never been this kind of scrutiny.

IPS: Why did your superiors choose you to infiltrate these groups?

MG: I am white with blonde hair and blue eyes. That's it! I had literally no training. I was very lucky. There were many situations that could have gone very bad. In each case we were brought into the group by a citizen witness concerned about the activities of the group.

IPS: What is the difference between domestic terrorist groups and international terrorists, in terms of their motives and goals?

MG: There is no difference. They use the same strategies and methods. Basically, the idea of a terrorist group is to represent an aggrieved community. They have no authority to, but they hope to. Their purpose is to get the government or an authority to retaliate against the community they pretend to represent. The terrorists' hope is that the community members would then have to turn to them for help.

In countering a strategy like that you would think that the government would never acknowledge the group.

IPS: Even al-Qaida and neo-Nazi groups use the same organizing techniques?

MG: If you talk to so-called terrorist experts today, they talk about the ingenious al-Qaida network, a network of disparate cells. But this organizing technique was taken from white supremacists. In 1992, the Ku Klux Klan published a "Leaderless Resistance" paper. It was followed by the Klan, white supremacists and now al-Qaida.

IPS: Is there evidence that the methods the U.S. government is using to counter terrorism are working?

MG: The U.S. State Department shows that the number of terrorist attacks reached an all-time high in 2003. The number of attacks then tripled in 2004. Six years after President [George W.] Bush started the global war on terrorism, we are no safer than we were in 2001, despite the tremendous amount of funds spent and the loss of our civil liberties. And there is less security when you give up your liberty.

IPS: How should we be combating terrorism?

MG: We should be focusing on criminal activity, not ideology. There are very, very few terrorists. There is a division of labor in these groups and people who write the groups' materials are different from the people who make the bombs. So much of our effort is aimed at people who say things we don't like. But if you give someone a chance to speak out they will feel much better and will be less violent.

IPS: As someone who studies the FBI and U.S. intelligence gathering, what can you tell us about the National Security Letters -- the secret requests for information on many ordinary Americans?

MG: At least 143,000 National Security Letters have been served. When the Department of Justice Inspector General did an audit, he found more abuses in the use of the letters than the FBI had reported. Some people who were served the letters didn't understand them and provided much more information than the FBI had requested. The FBI filed this information. This shows the corruption that can occur with secrecy.

The Inspector General tried to tease out how many of these letters actually brought prosecutions, and the answer is 200 -- with one resulting in a terrorist-related prosecution.

IPS: Is there intimidation within the FBI as well?

MG: I teach a class about terrorism and we study terrorist manifestos. People in government who are students in the class come to me and say, "I'm afraid to read these because I'll be put on a list." And these are people in the intelligence community.

IPS: You seem to think the FBI can be fixed. What needs to happen?

MG: We need a transparent system and accountability. There has been an increase in corruption and incompetence in the national security division. To this day, there is a lack of understanding of terrorists.

Related links:

  • FBI violates Constitution with Patriot Act (FCN, 03-22-2007)
  • The FBI's History of Terrorism Against Black Organizations and Leaders (NOI.org)
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