FBI Agent Mike German Discusses Years Undercover Investigating Skinheads, Aryans and More
Former FBI agent Mike German spent years infiltrating violent groups on the radical right. He made it look easy.
GERMAN: On one level, they're very easy to infiltrate. If you were standing on a street corner as they were going [to a Klan cross burning], they'd say, "Hey, come along." Those are really open events and they encourage people who really aren't part of the movement to join in those sorts of things. But getting into the underlying criminal activity is much harder and that took a lot of time and was very difficult. I worked with excellent case agents who had developed great cooperating witnesses who were able to vouch for me and get me a lot further than I could have just walking in the door. But it's all just trial and error.
IR: How did you come up with your back-story?
GERMAN: In both cases, because there were cooperating witnesses already involved, I had to make my story fit with what they had already put into the group. So I basically would have to develop something based on what they had already told them. This got me in trouble at one point because I ended up having said that I knew something about boats. I actually knew nothing about boats. But at one point, I found myself driving a boat. That was actually the first boat I had even driven in my life.
IR: What happened?
GERMAN: The boat belonged to one of the subjects. The cooperating witness was a boat enthusiast, so it was something they had in common. Since I was close with the witness, it was assumed I was a boat enthusiast as well, or at least spent a lot of time around boats. In fact, I hadn't, but I never thought it would come up.
We were getting together to pick up parts of several machine guns that we were buying from [a target] and to pay him. The subject wanted to meet us at his slip in Marina Del Rey, so he could get his engines running and we could have a little joy ride around the marina and have lunch. I thought he really wanted to take us out where we couldn't be surveilled, so I was a tad nervous anyway.
The idea was that we were just going to motor around the marina. At one point, the subject wanted to have a private word with the witness and he asked me to take the helm and take the boat out of the marina so the engines could be completely opened up. Like I said, I had never driven a big boat like that so I just pretended I knew what I was doing. I managed to get us out and back without capsizing!
IR: These were some pretty dangerous subjects, planning mass attacks. Were there times when there was pressure to end the investigation prematurely?
GERMAN: One group had actually done bombings already, and once you realize a group has already done a bombing it becomes very hard for the FBI not to level charges against them and wrap up the case. The FBI was obviously very concerned that these guys were still out there, so to mitigate any threat they could pose we had to come up with a way to convince them to basically relinquish whatever weapons they had.
IR: How did you do that?
GERMAN: Basically, I just posed a problem and let them come up with a solution. I said I had access to storage devices that would hide their stuff better than they could and the obvious solution was [for them] to relinquish the weapons to me and let me be in charge of them.
IR: Four years later, after you wrapped up your Skinhead case, you ended up infiltrating another group of heavily armed extremists in the Pacific Northwest. In the end, eight militia members were arrested. Can you tell us about that?
GERMAN: Because that [Los Angeles Skinhead] case received a lot of notoriety, especially on the west coast, I was given a security transfer and moved out of Los Angeles. I basically just went back to working regular cases. I had undercover certification, but I really did not expect to be doing more [with extremists].
But then, after Oklahoma City, the FBI got very interested in what the militias were doing and so the Seattle Militia case came up.
IR: Was that a difficult case for you?
GERMAN: It was what I signed up for, so I don't think I was surprised by it. But it takes a toll -- especially when they show up one day with bombs and you're now spending the day putting bombs together in a garage.
IR: How did that happen?
GERMAN: There were two groups in that case, the Washington State Militia and a group we referred to as the Freemen from Seattle. They met with me and wanted to test some explosives that they were mixing, which they called C-4 [a type of plastic explosive]. We were asking them questions about it, but in that sort of environment, there's not a whole lot of detail discussed. They were a little bit obscure about what they were bringing, but they said it would fit in a plastic bag.
The initial plan was to take [the explosives] to a farm and test them, but obviously the FBI wanted to recover the evidence. So we created a ruse where the field we were going to test it on was not going to be available. I suggested they should just give it to me and I would test it for them and videotape it. They weren't happy about that and wanted to have a discussion. We ended up going to the cooperating witness's garage.
What they actually had was live pipe bombs. They proceeded to take the caps off of the pipe bombs and insert detonators -- all while I'm standing there, which was quite uncomfortable. The cooperating witness's daughter was having a birthday party in the backyard. On the other side of this plywood garage wall, there were half a dozen 12-year-olds.