D E W, Texas, July 12 -Born out of the destruction of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, a little-noticed program has made strange bedfellows of FBI agents and militia members.
On the orders of FBI Director Louis Freeh and Attorney General Janet Reno, agents in the 56 FBI field offices around the country have been finding ways to reach out to members of militia groups in their local areas.
The program, established just weeks after the April 19, 1995, bombing that killed 168 people, has been an open secret with positive consequences for the nation's top police agency and the militia movement.
"I think you're seeing it throughout the communities, law enforcement trying to reach out and say, 'We're human beings, too,"' said FBI spokesman Bill Crowley, who is an agent in the Pittsburgh, Pa., office.
"The idea we're pushing is that it's not a crime to be a member of the militia, or to be an FBI agent, for that matter."
The FBI has been pleased that many members of the nation's militias are in agreement.
"They are our FBI. We needed to get a face on them," said Raymond Smith, a commander with the Texas Freedom Fighters and a member of the National Militia Advisory Board. "Our government can't be our enemy. If it is, we're in trouble."
The outreach program takes many forms.
In Texas, several meetings have taken place in hinterland burgs like Dew, a community of 71 people located some 100 miles south of Dallas.
Crowley said the No. 2 agent in the Pittsburgh office, which includes the militia hotbed of West Virginia in its territory, was a guest on a shortwave radio show highlighting militia topics.
In early 1996, the head of the FBI's Kansas City office spoke to about 100 members of the Missouri 51st Militia at the group's annual meeting.
The meetings give militia members a chance to meet people like FBI Special Agent-in-Charge Danny Defenbaugh, who has been the subject of dozens of Internet newsgroups because of his role in leading the Oklahoma City bombing investigation.
The sit-downs also help the FBI set the record straight on its motives. Last year, Defenbaugh requested a meeting in Dew to dispel rumors that he was charged with disbanding the groups.
"They get to realize you have integrity, and that you're a human being," said Defenbaugh, who heads the FBI's Dallas office.
The militia movement aims to protect Constitutional rights and provide for the nation's defense in times of war or emergency. Generally, the groups believe in states' rights and a limited federal government.
The FBI and some militia groups are at loggerheads largely because of a 1992 incident at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and the 1993 Waco standoff with the Branch Davidians that ended with the death of about 80 people.
At Ruby Ridge, an FBI sniper shot and killed the unarmed wife of white separatist Randy Weaver, the day after Weaver's 14-year-old son and a deputy U.S. marshal were killed in a firefight.
Smith and other like-minded militia members said they believe they are fighting the same enemy as the FBI: people who want to undermine the Constitution and the American way of life.
"What we believe and what they think are not that far different," said Lynn Van Huizen, a commander with the Michigan Militia Corps-Wolverines. "We're all concerned Americans. We all have to raise our kids here."
Federal agents and militia members say the outreach program helps distinguish true Constitutional militia members from hate groups and changes the public perception that militias are "anti-government."
"Christian Identity groups, Ku Klux Klan, Nazi groups, they claim to be a militia. The media gets a hold of it, and that group is a militia," Smith said. "Once you break the law, you are no longer militia. We don't want Americans killing Americans."