MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. — It looks like nothing more than a 2,500-acre military complex, but sinister plans are afoot. One day soon — if it hasn’t happened already — law-abiding U.S. citizens will be rounded up and imprisoned here by their oppressive federal government. It’s perfectly obvious to anyone with eyes to see the traffic signs that direct FEMA trucks this way and that: This is one of the 800 or more detention camps being built by a government gone mad.

At least that’s what more and more Americans believe. A fear that the federal government will concoct a pretense for declaring martial law and confine patriotic dissidents to concentration camps — a conspiracy theory that goes back decades and was especially prevalent during the militia movement of the 1990s — is spreading as the country experiences a surge in groups on the radical right.

In the last year, FOX News personality Glenn Beck devoted airtime on three shows to the theory, saying he “wanted to debunk it” but could not. (He eventually did, but only after much criticism.) Oath Keepers, a conspiracy-minded police and military organization formed last spring, listed the 10 “Orders We Will Not Obey,” including any command to enforce martial law or herd Americans into concentration camps. And in September, William Lewis Films and Gary Franchi Productions released “Camp FEMA: American Lockdown,” a video that alleges the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency is behind the camps. Lewis is a veteran maker of conspiracy-minded videos; Franchi heads Restore the Republic, an antigovernment "Patriot" group with militia-like beliefs. 

The 90-minute film opens with newsreel footage of Japanese Americans being forced into internment camps on the West Coast during World War II and a narrator declaring that after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the government “again went into open roundup mode.” He adds, “Is it possible history will repeat itself?” For the next 90 minutes, a Who’s Who of conspiracy diehards suggests that it is.

Many of the purported detention camps are supposedly on military bases around the country, including some that are closed. The radical-right conspiracy theorists say that nearby railroad tracks and aircraft runways near many of these sites are proof there are FEMA camps in the vicinity, because this is how prisoners will be easily moved. They also claim that razor wire atop tall fences around some of these facilities provides a key clue to their real purpose. The razor edges are directed inward, not outward, they say, because they aren’t meant to keep out trespassers. They’re there to hold prisoners.

One long-time Patriot conspiracy theorist, retired Phoenix police officer Jack McLamb, has gone so far as to claim that the government has placed unobtrusive colored dots on people’s mailboxes so that when martial law is declared, foreign troops serving the “New World Order” will know what’s to be done with the people at each address. A blue dot your mailbox: You’re taken to a FEMA camp. Pink: You’ll be used for slave labor. Red: You are shot in the head immediately.

Myth at Maxwell
On a long list of murky origins that regularly circulates on the Internet, Maxwell Air Force Base is identified as already operating a civilian prison camp with a small support staff and inmate population. That’s true, but it’s a minimum-security federal prison camp with about 900 inmates, not a FEMA facility. And it’s hardly a secret facility — the prison is regularly mentioned in the newspapers and has been operating for years.

Conspiracy theorists don’t say exactly where the supposed FEMA detention camp might be at Maxwell. But one of them shot a nine-minute video that appeared last year on YouTube and had been viewed by 1,491 people at press time. In it, the unnamed videographer locates what he thinks must be the spot. He points out orange road signs that say “FEMA Trucks” with arrows pointing to the routes they should follow. He eventually videotapes what he describes as a watchtower, dozens of large tents, an old ambulance, and what he says are picnic tables and games on the other side of a six-foot chain-link fence topped with razor wire. The fact that a low-slung building inside the wire has a loudspeaker on it is “awfully odd,” he asserts. 

In a silent, isolated corner of Maxwell is indeed the supposedly ominous tower, perhaps three dozen tents and other structures shown in the video. Some days, the only sign of life here is an occasional jogger. The place looks about as sinister as a deserted summer camp. There is razor wire atop the six-foot tall chain-link fence, but it is facing outward. The Air Force is trying to keep people out, not in.

That’s because this is an officer-training site, not a secret FEMA concentration camp. Officers — even ROTC cadets — come here to train, sleeping in tents that are part of a simulated “deployed environment.” They are taught military skills including the basics of defending their base, land navigation and field medicine, Lt. Col. Mark Ramsey said during a recent tour of the site.

On a 35-degree morning this January, 354 Air Force personnel were going through drills. There was no evidence of a detention camp — but there were innocent explanations for everything the anonymous videomaker discovered. The watchtower? It’s used for rappelling on one side, rocking climbing on another. The tent city? It’s meant to replicate austere battlefield conditions and has been there since 1999, says Phil Berube, a spokesman for the base. The ambulance? A prop “used by the officer trainees who will become military doctors and nurses to give a semblance of battlefield conditions,” he explains. It’s not even operable.

The picnic tables and games? There are benches in open-air shelters, but no picnic tables. The shelters provide shade from Alabama’s searing summer heat and double as informal outdoor classrooms, Ramsey says. The “games” are a physically demanding obstacle course. That “awfully odd” speaker, the one mounted on that low-slung building? It’s affixed to a warehouse containing cots and sleeping bags, and is a means to alert those in training of urgent news, such as a violent storm approaching. And the tell-tale “FEMA Trucks” signs? They direct workers to staging areas on the base where they can coordinate efforts, collect supplies and respond to crises in the region, such as providing relief after a hurricane or tornado.

A Conspiracy Theory Takes Off
FEMA camp stories have been around a long time. Almost three decades ago, back in 1982, a newsletter of the extreme-right and anti-Semitic Posse Comitatus warned that “hardcore Patriots” would be imprisoned in FEMA detention camps. Some versions during the militia heyday of the 1990s had urban street gangs like the Bloods and the Crips, rather than domestic or foreign troops, rounding up antigovernment patriots.

Conspiracy theorists often point to a front-page story in The Miami Herald back in 1987 as proof that, in the words of one of them, “FEMA is the executive arm of the coming police state and thus will head up all operations.” The story reported that between 1982 and 1984, Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North had helped draft a secret contingency plan to suspend the Constitution in the event of a national crisis, such as nuclear war, violent and widespread domestic dissent, or national opposition to a U.S. military invasion abroad. North would later become infamous for his part in the Iran-Contra affair, in which weapons were sold to intermediaries in Iran with the proceeds used to fund antigovernment “contra” rebels in Nicaragua.

The plan was written for President Ronald Reagan in case he ever wanted to take such action. The newspaper also obtained a copy of a FEMA official’s 1982 memo that it reported was similar to a paper then-FEMA director Louis Guiffrida had written 12 years earlier. In the 1970 document, Guiffrida reportedly advocated martial law in case of a national uprising by black militants and the transferring of at least 21 million “American Negroes” to “assembly centers or relocations camps.” 

During the Iran-Contra hearings in 1987, Texas congressman Jack Brooks asked North about the newspaper’s findings. But Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, who chaired the Senate Select Committee on Iran-Contra, rapidly silenced him, telling the Democratic congressman he was getting into a “highly sensitive and classified area.” That was further proof of their claims, conspiracy buffs contend.

But FEMA and its alleged plans for freedom-loving Americans are not the only government conspiracies that so-called Patriots and their fellow travelers love to hate. In a related vein, they also point to numerous presidential executive orders that they claim will allow the suspension of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. 

Executive Order Angst
Executive orders are nothing new. Presidents have issued them for more than 200 years, usually to direct federal agencies and officials in carrying out established laws or policies. Some have been momentous: Truman signed one that integrated the armed forces. Reagan issued one barring the use of federal money for advocating abortion. FEMA camp aficionados point to another executive order: One signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt that led to Japanese Americans on the West Coast being sent to internment camps for the remainder of World War II. Congress can overturn an executive order, although it requires a supermajority vote to do so. A president can sign an executive order rescinding an executive order of his predecessor. And the courts can overturn an executive order, although they have done so only twice.

“It’s fair to say that more executive orders haven’t been struck down by the Supreme Court because most aren’t far reaching and ambitious … or they concern murky issues about separation of powers,” said Gregory Magarian, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis and a constitutional law expert. The courts tend to be especially deferential to the government in wartime, he added.

Like the conspiracy theorists, Magarian sees disturbing trends in how the government deals with political protests, including the creation of “free speech zones” and the collecting of information about protesters. But he finds it hard to imagine a scenario whereby a president could declare martial law and imprison innocent citizens. Historically, martial law has been declared only where there is widespread violence, and the response has been localized, Magarian says. He cites school integration as an example. The National Guard was called out in some cases, but only in communities were there was widespread racial strife.

But websites like that run by a conspiracy-mongering group called Friends of Liberty are thick with worries about executive orders. That site lists 15 “Executive Orders associated with FEMA that would suspend the Constitution and the Bill of Rights” and that “could be enacted by the stroke of a Presidential pen.” The orders generally allow the government to take control of various industries in a state of emergency. Only one of the alleged orders actually mentions FEMA. 

Another, related conspiracy is supposedly the brainchild of U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.). When Hastings reintroduced a bill in January last year that would create six National Emergency Centers, Jerome Corsi, writing on the far-right WorldNetDaily website, said the measure “appears designed to create the type of detention center that those concerned about use of the military in domestic affairs fear could be used as concentration camps for political dissidents, such as occurred in Nazi Germany.”  

That’s the same Corsi who launched the Swift boat attacks on Sen. John Kerry after he became the Democratic Party nominee for president in 2004. Corsi has also insisted without proof that President Obama posted a fake birth certificate on his website in order to address groundless claims that he is not an American citizen. The “Camp FEMA” movie has a similar take as Corsi on the Hastings bill.

Hastings’ vision: The centers would provide temporary housing, medical and other assistance for people displaced due to an emergency, as well as sites that would serve as centralized locations for training and coordination of first responders in the event of an emergency. The congressman’s state was clobbered by a series of hurricanes in 2004 and 2005. (Conspiracists claim FEMA’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was so poor because its primary mission had been changed from humanitarian efforts to being the government’s tool for imposing martial law.)

Curious and Curiouser
For all their talk about civilian detention camps, the conspiracy theorists are woefully vague on specifics. Their list of detention sites often gives the name of a military base or other facility and nothing more. When there is more information, it can be wildly speculative. In Pensacola, Fla., it “is believed that a facility may be carved out of the wilds.” One conspiracy theorist even claims “the largest of these facilities,” a “massive mental health facility” near Fairbanks, Alaska, “can hold approximately 2 million people.” (Alaska’s 2008 population was 686,000.)

Another reputed current or future detention camp is at Fort Chaffee, Ark. The former Army base was transferred to the Arkansas Army National Guard in 1997 and is now a training facility. In recent years, chunks of the base’s land have been forfeited for redevelopment. Even so, the conspiracy theorists believe Fort Chafee has a new runway and a new camp facility that can hold 40,000 prisoners.

“It’s kind of a laugh,” said Capt. Chris Heathscott, state public affairs officer for the Arkansas National Guard. A maximum of 7,000 soldiers can train at Fort Chafee, which couldn’t possibly accommodate 40,000 people, Heathscott said. There is no new camp, although some of the base’s old barracks were remodeled for use by soldiers and by Hurricane Katrina evacuees temporarily housed there. 

A federal prison camp at Allenwood, Pa. is supposed to be another potential concentration camp site. The FEMA camp list says it has only 300 inmates, but has the capacity to hold more than 15,000 people on 400 acres. There are, however, low-, medium- and high-security facilities on 640 acres, not 400. The total inmate population of the three prisons combined was 3,954 as of Dec. 17, a Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman said. “There is no way they can house 15,000 people out there,” spokeswoman Carla Wilson said.

Popular Mechanics magazine debunked some of the FEMA camp lore last year. An aerial photo, for example, of what supposedly was a detention camp in Wyoming was shown by the magazine to be a North Korean prison camp. And the 500,000 plastic, air-tight coffins supposedly stored in Atlanta, perhaps to bury plague or biological warfare victims? That was about 50,000 polypropylene burial vaults manufactured by a company for routine use in preventing the collapse of burial plots. But facts like these have not slowed the conspiracy theorists.

Ultimately, belief in FEMA detention camps requires one to conclude that nobody has ever escaped from one and told their story. It means believing that not one camp worker has breathed a word about his or her job. It requires assuming that not one of America’s 100 senators or 435 congressmen knows of the camps or, if they do, none is alarmed enough to call for hearings. It means believing that not a single ambitious journalist connected to a national media outlet has delved into this dastardly plan. And it requires one to assume that such innocuous things as the “FEMA Trucks” signs at the Maxwell AFB — in plain view of thousands of motorists — actually betray a terrible secret.

But the Patriots and other conspiracy theorists who circulate these theories — and they have moved in recent times from that fringe into the so-called “tea parties” and other populist and nativist groups — believe all of that, and believe it with a passion. When Glenn Beck finally conceded there was no evidence of FEMA camps, Texas radio conspiracist Alex Jones angrily responded by calling the FOX host, among other things, “an operative,” a “sick bastard” and “a piece of crap.”

The narrator of the video taken outside Maxwell Air Force Base purporting to show a FEMA camp may have inadvertently summed up detention camp conspiracy theories best.  As he neared the end of his faux exposé, he said, “You can come up with whatever story you want to come up with.”