Former FBI agent Mike German spent years infiltrating violent groups on the radical right. He made it look easy.
In 1992, members of the Fourth Reich Skinheads, World Church of the Creator and White Aryan Resistance had begun amassing explosives and automatic weapons with the goal of attacking synagogues and assassinating prominent minority figures such as Rodney King, Rev. Al Sharpton, Minister Louis Farrakhan, and rappers Public Enemy and Eazy-E. Detailed plans had been drawn up to bomb the First African Methodist Episcopal church in Los Angeles in a coordinated attack that included using pipe bombs and machine guns to slaughter the 5,000-member, mostly black congregation.
Racist Skinheads hopefully predicted that these acts would start a race war, but their plans were foiled by a young FBI agent, Michael German, who spent a year infiltrating Skinhead circles and was able to gather evidence that led to the arrest of eight suspects in 1993. Four years later, in 1997, German was undercover again. This time, he was instrumental in bringing seven members of the Washington State Militia and the Seattle-based Freemen to justice on charges of conspiring against the government and possession of destructive devices.
Mike German's 16-year career with the FBI came to an abrupt end in 2004. German, whose infiltrations in California and Washington had earned him accolades including a medal of valor, had been involved in a 2002 investigation in north Florida exploring links between an international terrorist organization and a domestic group that included the sale of illegal drugs. In the course of his investigation, German discovered several instances of FBI mismanagement, and when he reported those findings -- which included an illegal wiretap and the altering of records -- his superiors responded by stripping him of his security clearance and forcing him to resign. But in the end, a whistle-blower investigation completed by the Justice Department in November 2005 "substantiated German's allegations that the Orlando case was mishandled and mismanaged."
Despite the premature end to his career, German remembers most of his time with the FBI fondly. He spoke to the Intelligence Report about the years he spent undercover with right-wing extremists, including two of his most successful cases.
INTELLIGENCE REPORT: Mike, what drew you to the FBI?
MICHAEL GERMAN: I was an army brat, so I lived everywhere once. I was raised believing in serving your country and decided when I was just a kid that I was going to go to law school and join the FBI and my parents thought that was great. I graduated from high school and went to law school at Northwestern University and joined the FBI immediately afterwards.
It was obviously an exciting job and I was kind of a Type A person that needed a little bit of excitement. The FBI also had a reputation for being the best law enforcement agency in the world, so there were a lot of things pushing me. Luckily, I came at a time when the FBI was hiring. I got to fulfill my childhood dream, which most people can't say they've done.
My initial investigations were in fraud and white-collar crime so they weren't as exciting as I might have hoped for, but it was a great education. I learned how to put cases together and how to do complex investigations and it was taking advantage of my legal background.
IR: How did you transition from investigating white-collar crime to infiltrating white supremacist groups?
GERMAN: Literally, one day a guy walked past my office and said, "I need a young Nazi." I looked like I was about 15 years old and I had blond hair and blue eyes, so I was kind of perfect for what he was looking for in this particular investigation, which was looking at some violent Skinhead activity in Los Angeles.
IR: How did you prepare for your role as a racist Skinhead?
GERMAN: I actually grew my hair out longer so I wouldn't look so clean cut. They criticized me for it and told me to cut my hair all the time. I mean, the Skinheads were worse than the people at the FBI as far as my hair!
The agent who had been doing the investigation had been on the case for over a year at that point and had been using various cooperating witnesses. Some of them had been recording some conversations, so I assisted in reviewing those recordings and also just read materials that the subject groups had published.
IR: What was your experience undercover like at first?
GERMAN: I probably had more understanding than the average person, but it didn't scratch the surface of what I needed to know. They spoke a whole different language and it was very difficult to understand what they were talking about. Some of the theories are so outside the normal realm of experience that it was really hard to tell whether people were joking or not. Somebody would say something very outrageous and you would tend to want to chuckle. Then you'd realize that nobody else is chuckling.
They were much smarter, much more professional and much more organized than I had given them credit for. I was expecting it would be kind of like hanging out with a street gang and that the violence would be very unpredictable and that there was not really much substance behind their philosophical and religious arguments -- that it was all just motivated by ignorance and hate as opposed to ideology. It surprised me how complex the ideologies were. They would go on and on for hours and hours. I would have a very large headache by the end of the day.
Also, as an FBI agent I had to be very careful about what I was saying and what was coming out of my mouth because, of course, I was going to be in front of a jury and I was recording everything. If there were comments I was making that were particularly abhorrent, it would be hard to convince the jury that that was part of the game and not my own beliefs. Often, rather than say something, I would refer to something I had read or something someone else said.
IR: How hard was it for you to gain their trust?
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.
IR: And you were videotaping the whole time?
GERMAN: Yes. But then one of the bomb makers indicated he'd accidentally left a bomb at home. Obviously, it was something I wanted to get off the street right away, so I arranged to go to his house the next morning. When there was no answer at the door, I went around back where his wife was playing with their grandchildren. She came over and I told her who I was and that I was there to pick up a "package." She opened the gas grill, where she kept it so the kids wouldn't get into it.
Keeping a small bomb in a gas grill, of course, just makes it a much bigger bomb. But that was typical of the recklessness these groups exhibit all the time. Luckily for me, her and her grandkids, I was able to get the bomb out of there so it could be disposed of by the bomb techs.
IR: Once you had amassed enough evidence to prosecute, how did you arrest your suspects?
GERMAN: These groups tend to revere their martyrs and they talk about martyrdom all the time, about how "if anybody ever tries to arrest me, it's going to be to the death" and "I'm not going to be taken alive," that kind of stuff.
So, as we were preparing for the arrest, we tried to create a situation where we could control the environment. Instructional classes were kind of a normal thing for them. This was an activity they were constantly involved in, trying to learn police techniques so that they could combat them. So we decided I would teach them how to pick out of handcuffs with a lock pick set. That way, we would get everyone to put handcuffs on themselves. It worked perfectly. I had a bunch of lock pick sets and I just said, "Hey, this is something I taught myself to do and I can teach you how to do it, too." So everybody grabbed a set of handcuffs and put them on.
My having had the experience with Skinheads made the militia case much easier. I wasn't constantly overcoming my mistakes. I controlled the situation a little better. A lot of undercover work is just plain luck and we had a lot of luck early in that case. Basically, its better to be lucky than good.
IR: Did you feel in danger at any time during the case?
GERMAN: When I was undercover with the militia, the ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms] made an undercover case against the Viper militia [also known as the Viper Team] in Arizona. Unfortunately, that had a negative impact on our case because they were saying, "Wait a minute, what if we have already been infiltrated?" They started redoing everybody's backgrounds, which was not good for me. But I'm sure that was happening in other cells, also.
When a group has to stop and redirect their efforts to security rather than operations, it helps protect against terrorism. Their paranoia about whether I might be an undercover agent, or whether the next guy might be, is what prevents them from doing most of the things they wanted to do. In other words, they'd plan an event and then call it off because they would get spooked.
That's a victory. If we are making their job harder and they don't know who they can trust and who they can't, we win. But the only way we can do that is by having successful undercover cases that result in prosecutions. It's not that you grab one cell. It's that you show every other cell that we can get into your cell.