FBI Point Man Robert Blitzer Discusses Agency’s Work With Extremist Groups
Leading FBI official discusses domestic terrorism
Robert Blitzer is the FBI's point man on handling the threat posed by domestic extremist movements. As the chief of domestic terrorism and counterterrorism planning, he oversees FBI units dealing with analysis of the terrorist threat, criminal and intelligence investigations, weapons of mass destruction, domestic preparedness and other matters.
In an interview with the Intelligence Report, Blitzer discussed extremist views of the year 2000 and the Y2K computer bug, weapons of mass destruction, and the state of the antigovernment and white supremacist movements.
INTELLIGENCE REPORT: We've seen a great deal of talk in American extremist movements, parts of which are deeply affected by millennial beliefs, about the coming of the year 2000. Is the FBI noticing the same thing?
BLITZER: My analytical people are seeing snippets of this out there, both on the Net and to a lesser degree in our investigative activity. Many of these groups have apocalyptic visions. Sometimes that's connected to the millennium and sometimes it's not. The millennium is certainly an event that a lot of extremists are focusing on.
There probably is some sense that something will happen. We're not seeing anything in the cases that we've been working pointing to any particular planned violent action around that time. But a lot of the groups are very security-conscious and operate in a clandestine fashion, so we won't always know when something is about to happen.
IR: How would you assess the potential threat?
BLITZER: I think it's going to continue the way it has over the last couple of years, with little eruptions happening here and there around the nation.
We've had cases, for instance, like the Klan case outside Fort Worth, Texas, where they were going to blow up a [gas] tank farm. There was the group in Illinois connected to the Aryan Nations that was planning some terrorist operations.
We had the Phineas Priests up in the Pacific Northwest, robbing money from banks and blowing up facilities as diversions.
That's the kind of pattern that I've seen over the last three years, and I don't see that changing.
IR: There's also been a lot of talk in the movement about the so-called "Y2K" computer problem. How does that fit into the picture?
BLITZER: I think it's just another manifestation of their paranoia. It's like everything else that we've seen in the past — black helicopters, those kinds of things. It's another element of that paranoia about the government taking over and becoming totalitarian.
This is just a newer thing for them to pound on.
IR: You recently discussed conducting a national assessment of dangers surrounding the year 2000. What are you planning?
BLITZER: I was speaking not so much of a formal assessment as an informal polling of all FBI field officers prior to the year 2000. We want to see what they're hearing through their contacts just to get a sense, a national sense, of what's going on.
IR: You recently told Congress that the number of investigations into the use of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials had risen to 86 this year over 68 in 1997. How serious is that threat?
BLITZER: My sense is that the threat is low in the arena of weapons of mass destruction. We're seeing lone individuals engaging in either hoaxes or actual cases. These are the people I'm most afraid of, the people capable of doing something like another Oklahoma City bomb. It doesn't take but one or two people to put a major bomb like that together.
The ability of law enforcement to discover and prevent that kind of an act, absent help from someone who knows what they're up to, is very slim.
We've had guys playing with [the deadly toxin] ricin and we've had some anthrax threat cases. There's also concern that some state sponsor who has the scientific know-how could decide to hurt a lot of people using some kind of biological or chemical device. I think everyone feels that's out in the future. There's no indication that this is going to happen anytime soon, but that being said, the intelligence game is not perfect.
The biological and chemical know-how to make these things is out there, but the technical capability to execute an attack is a different thing. If you're handling that stuff you really have to have training.
If you're doing biologicals, in particular, it can be very scary — you better really know what you're doing. A chemical [attack], on the other hand, is not as hard. But it still is not that easy, technically, to disperse the stuff.
IR: Some politicians have complained that the country isn't preparing quickly enough for such a threat. How well prepared are we?
BLITZER: We're making progress, but I think there's still a long way to go. I think the attorney general and others at senior levels are committed to trying to improve things.
IR: There seems to have been a remarkable rise in the number of domestic terrorism conspiracies in the three-and-a-half years since the Oklahoma City bombing. How many such cases is the FBI working presently?
BLITZER: It seems to hover right around 1,000 [compared to fewer than 100 before the Oklahoma City attack]. There are a lot of bombing cases around the United States that come under the domestic terrorism mantle. I'm always running a half a dozen to a dozen domestic terrorism intelligence cases — a very small number.
The vast majority of my cases are investigating crimes that have already occurred and that have been linked in one way or another to a domestic terrorism group.
There are really two things going on here. Because we've had additional resources [with the hiring of several hundred new agents], we've been able to do a better job in preventing or at least identifying criminal activity. When you've got people out there working it, you're developing additional investigations that may have gone unnoticed in past years.
IR: Almost all the major terrorist conspiracies have been stopped by law enforcement before people were killed or buildings blown up. To what do you attribute these successes?
BLITZER: Frankly, I think the reason is that we've had such good interaction in our task forces between state and local police, the bureau and other federal law enforcement agencies such as Secret Service and ATF. That synergy has been there. We've done a lot of training with the states and locals through a couple of programs we've had.
Also, everyone in this nation, including the law enforcement family, was very deeply touched by Oklahoma City, and so police nowadays are much more vigilant when they see things happen. A lot of these cases have come to us through other law enforcement agencies and through people [inside the movement] who just don't want to be involved in something like that.
In the Fort Worth case, one of the guys just couldn't do it — he didn't want to kill a lot of people. In another Texas case, there were two guys who were going to go down to Fort Hood [a large Army base in Killeen] and do some assassinations. That came to us from an undercover operation being run by state police.
So I'm knocking on wood here, but we've had a good run. Still, you just don't know what else is out there. You can't be everywhere. It's a big country with a lot of people.
IR: We've noticed that the so-called "Patriot" movement seems to have shrunk in size but at the same time become more hard-line. Would you agree?
BLITZER: I think it has really flattened out. There was a big surge [in numbers] after the Persian Gulf conflict and even prior to the Oklahoma City bombing.
After Oklahoma, a lot of people seemed to sit back and say, "Is this really what we want?" It's one thing to defend your country — and a lot of these militia groups believe they are defending their country — but it's another to be tainted by the murder of your own citizens.
So there is a smaller number of groups. But I do think that what is left is more serious people, more serious than those who we saw in the early '90s out there training in the woods. They are much more concerned about security and being penetrated by law enforcement. They're just more careful.
IR: How would you categorize the kinds of threats the FBI is seeing now on the domestic terrorism front?
BLITZER: They really cut across a lot of different areas. You have people who have personal beefs with other people. I've seen them go off on divorce matters. There are people who are mentally unstable. You have people who have a grudge against the government for many reasons — and it doesn't have to be the federal government.
We also get a lot of hoaxes. But you have to treat each one seriously. The one you don't focus on could be the one to get you.