In the wake of violent clashes between protesters last August in Charlottesville, many people demanded a federal crackdown on suspected dangerous extremists. The federal government has previously carried out similar heavy-handed suppression efforts with disastrous results. Rather than intellectually purifying the nation, such efforts are far more likely to turn nitwits into martyrs.
During the 1960s and early 1970s, Washington’s efforts to stomp out bad ideas spawned federal crime waves. The FBI’s COINTELPRO program utterly exempted itself from the Constitution and federal, state, and local laws. The FBI set up its own 250-member Klan organization “to attract membership away from the United Klans of America,” as a 1976 Senate report noted. One federally funded informant admitted that he and other Klansmen had “beaten people severely, had boarded buses and kicked people off; had went [sic] in restaurants and beaten them with blackjacks, chains, pistols.” Other FBI COINTELPRO operations sought to destroy black activists, including Martin Luther King Jr. One FBI office boasted of spurring “shootings, beatings, and a high degree of unrest … in the ghetto area of southeast San Diego.” Because the instigators were federal agents, they faced no criminal penalty for behavior that would have sent other Americans to prison.
Once the FBI committed to subverting dissident speech, its crackdowns became a bureaucratic growth industry that eventually targeted even the Women’s Liberation Movement. Tom Charles Huston, an aide to President Richard Nixon, gave testimony in 1975 about COINTELPRO’s tendency “to move from the kid with a bomb to the kid with a picket sign, and from the kid with the picket sign to the kid with the bumper sticker of the opposing candidate. And you just keep going down the line.”
The best-known case of federal targeting of right-wingers occurred in 1992 at Ruby Ridge.
A recent Washington Post article with the untimely headline “Why the American Left Gave Up on Political Violence” (Antifa’s violent rampages made headlines in the following weekends), asserted that alienated right-wingers had “sparked the deadly standoff in Ruby Ridge, Idaho.” Similarly, National Public Radio asserted in August that “Ruby Ridge is still a rallying cry for people on the militant far right.”
Randy Weaver and his family lived in an isolated cabin in the mountains of northern Idaho. Weaver was a white separatist who believed races should live apart; he had no record of violence against other races — or anyone else. An undercover federal agent targeted him and entrapped him into selling a sawed-off shotgun. The feds sought to pressure Weaver, who often indulged in anti-government bluster, to become an informant against the Aryan Nation, but he refused.
After Weaver was sent the wrong court date and (understandably) failed to show up, the feds used any and all means to take him down. Idaho lawyer David Nevin noted that U.S. “marshals called in military aerial reconnaissance and had photos studied by the Defense Mapping Agency. They prowled the woods around Weaver’s cabin with night-vision equipment. They had psychological profiles performed and installed $130,000 worth of long-range solar-powered spy cameras. They intercepted the Weavers’ mail. They even knew the menstrual cycle of Weaver’s teenage daughter, and planned an arrest scenario around it.”
On August 21, 1992, six U.S. Marshals outfitted in full camouflage and carrying machine guns trespassed onto the Weavers’ property. Three marshals circled close to the Weaver cabin and threw rocks to provoke the Weavers’ dogs. As Weaver’s 14-year old son, Sammy, and Kevin Harris, a 25-year old family friend living in the cabin, ran towards the barking, a marshal shot and killed a dog. Sammy Weaver fired in the direction those shots came from. As he was leaving the scene, a marshal shot him in the back and killed him. Harris responded by fatally shooting a federal marshal who had fired seven shots in the melee. (The U.S. Marshals Service later gave its highest valor awards to the marshals who carried out the ambush.)
The FBI decided that Weaver was such a bad person that the Constitution no longer applied. Snipers from the FBI Hostage Rescue Team were sent in the next day and ordered to shoot to kill any adult male outside the Weaver cabin. The rules of engagement epitomized federal overreach against citizens whom the government despised. A 1997 federal appeals court decision derided the rules as “a gross deviation from constitutional principles and a wholly unwarranted return to a lawless and arbitrary wild-west school of law enforcement.” A 2001 federal appeals court ruling noted that “a group of FBI agents formulated rules of engagement that permitted their colleagues to hide in the bushes and gun down men who posed no immediate threat. Such wartime rules are patently unconstitutional for a police action.”
On August 22, 1992, FBI sniper Lon Horiuchi shot Randy Weaver in the back after he stepped out of his cabin. As he struggled to return to his home, Horiuchi shot and killed Vicki Weaver, who was standing in the cabin door holding their 10-month old baby. A confidential 1994 Justice Department task force report was appalled that people were gunned down before receiving any warning: “The absence of a [surrender demand] subjected the Government to charges that it was setting Weaver up for attack.”
Weaver and Harris, who never fired any shots at FBI agents, surrendered after an 11-day siege. At their 1993 trial, federal prosecutors asserted that Weaver long conspired to have an armed confrontation with the government. The feds made the bizarre claim that his moving from Iowa to a spot near the Canadian border in 1985 was part of that plot. U.S. Marshal Dave Hunt, in later congressional testimony, repeatedly stressed that Weaver had criticized the federal government as a “lawless government.” Did federal agents feel compelled to silence any citizen who publicly proclaimed that the government is lawless?
An Idaho jury found Weaver not guilty of almost all charges and ruled that Harris’s shooting of the U.S. Marshal was self-defense. Federal Judge Edward Lodge released a lengthy list detailing the Justice Department’s and FBI’s misconduct and fabrication of evidence in the case.
In January 1995, FBI chief Louis Freeh announced that the FBI had completed its self-investigation, which effectively confirmed that the bureau was still immaculate. Writing in the Wall Street Journal and Washington Times, I bashed that ruling and the continuing cover-up. Freeh responded by denouncing my “misleading or patently false conclusions” and “inflammatory and unfounded allegations.”
In the summer of 1995, the FBI and Justice Department’s elaborate cover-up unraveled. (I acquired a copy of a damning 542-page confidential Justice Department report on Ruby Ridge and highlighted its findings in the Wall Street Journal.) The cover-up eventually unraveled and a top FBI official was sent to prison for destroying key evidence. The feds in 1995 paid the Weaver family $3 million to settle their wrongful-death lawsuit.
When Boundary County, Idaho, sought in 1998 to prosecute the FBI sniper who killed Vicki Weaver, the Clinton administration torpedoed their lawsuit by invoking the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution (which blocks local and state governments from challenging federal power). Seth Waxman, the Solicitor General of the United States, absolved the FBI agent because “Federal law-enforcement officials are privileged to do what would otherwise be unlawful if done by a private citizen.” But that is exactly why Ruby Ridge enraged so many Americans. And it was not simply a right-wing cause: the American Civil Liberties Union joined the National Rifle Association in condemning federal misconduct at Ruby Ridge.
Ruby Ridge could become even more important and incendiary in the coming years. Former President Barack Obama is reported to favor Massachusetts’s former governor Deval Patrick as his candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. When he was a top official in the Justice Department in 1994, Patrick whitewashed FBI abuses at Ruby Ridge. A 542-page confidential Justice Department task force report recommended federal criminal charges against the FBI sniper who killed Vicki Weaver. Patrick overturned that recommendation because he insisted that “excessive force” had not been used. “One shot, one kill” was apparently irrelevant to his analysis. In an era where Americans are increasingly protesting law-enforcement abuses, Patrick’s ruling on Ruby Ridge may come back to haunt him.
The federal government can quickly lose its credibility when it is perceived as conducting an ideological vendetta. Last August, a Nevada jury, in what the Associated Press labeled a “stunning setback to federal prosecutors,” found four supporters of rancher Cliven Bundy not guilty for their role in a 2014 confrontation with federal agents in a dispute over cattle grazing on government land. Even though federal judge Gloria Navarro prohibited defendants from invoking their constitutional rights, jurors scorned federal claims that the men were part of a conspiracy against the government. (To nail the Bundys and their supporters, the FBI even created a fake documentary film company that sought to create incriminating evidence while interviewing key participants in the standoff.) This was the second trial for some of the defendants after the initial jury refused to convict (but did not formally reach “not guilty” verdicts). After the second jury deadlocked on some of the charges against some defendants, the Justice Department announced that it would try them a third time. This travesty of fairness — prosecuting people into financial destruction regardless of the government’s losses — did not receive 1 percent of the denunciations from the media that it deserved.
Federal crackdowns on dissidents may be assisted by growing enthusiasm for censorship among establishment voices. The New York Times op-ed page and other prominent media venues have recently published calls to suppress dangerous ideas. There are increasing demands to treat certain ideas as the equivalent of violence, thereby attempting to justify preemptive violence by Antifa or other militants against their adherents.
In a nation with hundreds of millions of people, there will be plenty of folks with anti-social or harebrained notions. But if someone is living alone on a mountaintop, as long as he is not a cannibal, who cares what he believes? Even if the government could forcibly eliminate everyone with heretical beliefs, the sheer extent of repression would spawn legions of new rabble-rousers. Freedom of speech is a more reliable antidote to toxic ideologies than unleashing the FBI or other federal agencies.
Bad precedents can be far more deadly than bad ideas. If the government is entitled to effectively label certain individuals or groups or notions as public enemies, it is naive to expect due process and fair play to follow. Ruby Ridge illustrates the folly of treating noxious ideas like ticking time bombs. The vast majority of devotees of deluded dogmas will be duds — unless the government detonates the scene.
This article was originally published in the November 2017 edition of Future of Freedom.