Feds focusing on hate groups

Washington Post/May 20, 2003
By Maria Glod and Jerry Markon

Washington -- Armed federal agents slipped silently into place around Byron Calvert Cecchini's home in Leesburg, Va. They pounded on the door, rousing the self-described white supremacist from bed. They scoured the house, loading his computer, Rolodex and files into a Ryder truck.

The FBI began investigating Cecchini because of his ties to one of the nation's largest neo-Nazi groups. In an affidavit seeking a warrant for the pre-dawn raid this year, an agent wrote that Cecchini had a "violent criminal history" and likely owned weapons.

Agents found no weapons at the home, about 40 miles northwest of here, but they found something they were looking for: T-shirts with a Nike swoosh logo that substitutes the word "Nazi" for Nike. Cecchini faces possible charges for trademark violations, said law enforcement sources who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"You prosecute what you can prosecute," one law enforcement source said.

It's a tactic being used with increasing success nationwide as authorities step up efforts to curb domestic hate and terror groups: prosecute any illegal activity by known extremists and, at the same time, work to infiltrate potentially dangerous groups to guard against future attacks.

Even as dismantling al-Qaida remains the clear priority of the FBI's 66 joint terrorism task forces and more than 90 anti-terrorism task forces, agents have been ordered to be vigilant about domestic groups. "The focus on international terrorism is obvious, but September 11th has made us examine all security issues," a law enforcement official said. "You can't make the number one goal preventing attacks against the U.S. and not look at a danger that could be posed here at home."

The terrorism task forces are homing in on all groups, including militia movements and even environmental and animal rights organizations.

But the efforts have had the greatest impact on neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups. In recent months, prominent white supremacists have been indicted in several states, including Pennsylvania, Georgia and Washington -- news that has resulted in a frenzy of anti-government exchanges on neo-Nazi and other racist Web sites.

In Pennsylvania, an Aryan Nation member who expressed anti-Semitic beliefs on the Internet in an open letter of support to Saddam Hussein was indicted on weapons charges in March. A leader of the White Knights of Pennsylvania is accused of plotting to bomb abortion clinics.

Weapons charges also were filed against a Washington state man with ties to the white supremacist group Christian Identity and a Wisconsin man who came to the attention of authorities when he e-mailed photos of himself holding an AK-47 while standing in front of a flag with a swastika.

The White Revolution group postponed a February meeting, explaining on its Web site that leaders believed the government was "eager to use any pretext against white nationalists to arrest or raid or detain us." On another Internet site, Edgar Steele, an attorney who has represented the Aryan Nation, wrote: "There is a roundup taking place ... how long before they get to you?"

On his Web site, www.tightrope.cc, Cecchini talks about the "persecution" of those who share his views. "If any government thinks it can stop an idea whose time has come with pre-dawn raids and lengthy prison sentences, they have miscalculated," he wrote.

A former National Alliance member who broke with the group and created Tightrope, he acknowledges that his views are offensive to many. He said, however, that he isn't a danger to anyone and is "absolutely not involved in anything illegal."

"I don't mind being called a racist or a Nazi," Cecchini said in an interview. "I'm not offended if people don't like what I think."

Tightrope's Web site, which is rife with anti-Semitic and racist language, includes a "lynching section" with graphic photos. In "healthier times," Cecchini wrote on the site, rapists and killers were "almost sure to face the ruthless wrath of a mob of enraged Aryan men both willing and able to inflict a horrible death."

"It's still legal to be a member of a group and associate with whoever you want to associate with and have views that may be unpopular," Cecchini, who is married with young children, said in the interview. "This is still America."

David Trainor, an attorney for Chester Doles, a Georgia National Alliance member facing trial on weapons violations, said he's concerned that his client was investigated because of his affiliation with white supremacist groups. According to court records, Doles, who has a prior conviction that bars him from owning firearms, was arrested after an informant reported seeing him with weapons.

"Is he partly being prosecuted because of his membership in the National Alliance? The answer is yes," Trainor said. "I think that the basis for going after him is his words."

Law enforcement officials say that they are not trampling on free speech rights but that they must closely watch groups or individuals who advocate violence. "We make sure that we don't unnecessarily curb an individual's right to exercise their free speech, but you have to listen to what they say and watch what they do to see if they stepped over the line into criminal activity," Buchanan said.

Federal law enforcement officials say fighting domestic terrorism has always been a priority, if somewhat less visible in recent years amid the highly publicized war against al-Qaida and other international terrorist groups.

In response to the Sept. 11 attacks, the number of FBI-led joint terrorism task forces rose from 44 to 66. The Justice Department's 93 anti-terrorism task forces, run out of every U.S. attorney's office, coordinate the effort and keep in touch with officials at Justice headquarters in Washington.

The result is a much larger number of people investigating terrorism. More agents on the street means more domestic terrorism suspects are scooped up, along with those suspected of aiding al-Qaida or other international groups.

"Even as we fight the war on international terrorism and work to prevent another attack like September 11th," said Bryan Sierra, a Justice Department spokesman, "the Department of Justice is also making every effort to shut down hate groups and homegrown terrorists before they, too, can act violently on their hatred."

In a February 2002 statement to a Senate committee, Dale Watson, then the FBI's chief of counterterrorism and counterintelligence, named the National Alliance, the World Church of the Creator and the Aryan Nation, among others, as groups that present a "continuing terrorist threat."

Although federal agents use such tactics as electronic surveillance and wiretapping to fight all forms of terrorism, there are differences in how they confront the homegrown variety. Finding informants is easier, they say, because there are no language and cultural barriers such as those impeding efforts to infiltrate al-Qaida.

Cecchini said he has committed no crimes and thinks the authorities were "intelligence gathering."

"I guess I'm out of step with the current age, but all through history, a lot of the views I hold were mainstream," Cecchini said. "Now we're the wackos and the criminals."

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