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A ‘Sort of War on the Government’ Uncovered in Georgia Terror Plot Charges

November 2, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Four Georgia men who are suspected members of a militia group were arraigned on terrorism charges in federal court Wednesday. Margret Warner discusses the alleged plot to use the toxin ricin and other means to kill government officials and citizens with Greg Bluestein of The Associated Press.
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RAY SUAREZ: Now, the domestic terror plot uncovered in Georgia.

Margaret Warner has our story.

MARGARET WARNER: Four Georgia men appeared in a federal court in Gainesville, Ga., today, arraigned on terrorism charges. They were accused of conspiring to manufacture a deadly biological toxin, ricin, and planning to use it to kill U.S. citizens, among them government officials.

The four are suspected members of a militia group. Ray Adams, 65 years old, and Samuel Crump, 68, allegedly sought to develop and produce the ricin for use as a weapon. Frederick Thomas, 73, and Dan Roberts, 67, were accused of seeking to acquire weapons and an explosive device in the plot.

The U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia announced the arrests yesterday.

SALLY QUILLIAN YATES, U.S. attorney: Many of us are really focused on international violent extremists, but I think that this case really points out that we have to be vigilant and to stay on top of those of us within our own borders here who are attempting to do harm to their own government and to their own citizens.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on this, we are joined now by Greg Bluestein, who covers legal affairs for the Associated Press in Atlanta. He was in the courtroom today.

And, Greg, welcome, and thank you for joining us.

Tell us what it was like in court today.

GREG BLUESTEIN, Associated Press: Well, in a word, it was bizarre.

Imagine seeing four men between the ages of 65 and 73 shuffle into the courtroom. Some of them had — they had white, gray hair. One had a big bushy white beard. They stooped forward, some of them, and they craned their necks to try to hear the judge. At one point, the judge even stopped the proceedings and says — said to one of the men, “If you can’t hear me, please raise your hand, because this is a very important proceeding.”

It was very unique. They seemed very out of place.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, the court documents make it sound like quite a convoluted plot. Lay it out for us.

GREG BLUESTEIN: Yes, I had to read the hundred — the dozens of pages of documents a few times just to try to get — to comprehend it.

It says these four men lived in two north Georgia towns of Toccoa and Cleveland, which are in the North Georgia Mountains, and said they were part of an obscure militia group only known as the Covert Group. And they started meeting — their first meeting, at least that federal prosecutors would say, was in March at Frederick Thomas’ home

Frederick Thomas is a 73-year-old who is a 30-year — his wife says he’s a 30-year Navy veteran.

And that’s where their first meeting took place. Unbeknownst to them, there was also a confidential informant who was tape-recording the meeting. And that’s where Frederick — Mr. Thomas said that he had a — quote, unquote — “bucket list” of government officials he wanted to see disappear for the better of the country.

MARGARET WARNER: And so what were the targets they were planning to hit, and how? Where does the ricin fit in? Where do the explosives fit in?

GREG BLUESTEIN: Sure. They were talking about all sorts of — using all sorts of violent means to carry out this sort of war on the government.

They were talking about getting explosives, getting guns, getting a gun silencer, getting — making homemade mines. At one point, they were talking about — well, several times, they were talking about making ricin, manufacturing ricin from castor beans, because even small doses of this toxin can be deadly. And they were talking about using it, even disseminating it through the back of a car on busy highways in order to kill the maximum amount of people.

And they weren’t — these prosecutors say they weren’t really distinguishing between federal employees and just everyday citizens, which is one of the scary things.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, before we go on with this story and the investigation, who are these guys, other than their ages, and what was their motive? What comes through in the papers about that, supposedly — allegedly?

GREG BLUESTEIN: Yes. What comes through in the papers is that they had this violent hate of the government.

We’re not quite sure why or what exactly they hated, but we do know they targeted — they wanted to target the ATF and the IRS, because those two agencies are mentioned over and over again. So, presumably, they were upset about gun control activities and whatnot in government agents — agencies.

But one of them, Mr. Thomas, as I said, his wife says he’s a 30-year Navy veteran. Another man had worked for the USDA — USDA agency, and has even boasted of showing off some of his certificates he obtained from the USDA or from training certifications to the other suspects. And one of the men was a contractor for the CDC in Atlanta.

MARGARET WARNER: Did they do more than talk? Did they — what did they do, supposedly, in furtherance of this plot, actually do?

GREG BLUESTEIN: Yes.

Federal — yes, federal prosecutors said they went beyond just idle talk, that this is no laughing matter. They say two of the men actually were able to deduce the formula to make ricin out of these castor beans and to extract the ricin from the castor beans, and that the confidential informant somehow got their hands on this, on whatever they made, and was able to test it. The Georgia officials were able to test it, and it actually was ricin, that there was found to be traces of ricin.

So they actually had some sort of ricin. We’re not sure if they were going to use it. We’re not sure what they were going to do with it. But they actually did have in their position ricin.

Mr. Thomas, actually, went down with the confidential informant, drove from north Georgia down to downtown Atlanta, and scoped out the ATF’s headquarters in Atlanta, which is in the northeast part of the city, and the IRS headquarters in downtown Atlanta. So they actually cased the buildings.

Then, on the way back, he was — prosecutors say he told the informant that he wanted to blow up the building like Timothy McVeigh did, that he didn’t mind if — that he wasn’t sure if he minded if there was innocents who didn’t work at — work for the government who were also victims of the attacks.

And him and Mr. Roberts, one of the other suspects, were also accused of working with an undercover agent to buy a homemade explosive — to buy an explosive device and a silencer to carry out this violence.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, this ricin, which is such a deadly toxin, is it clear whether they actually just — they had the beans or they actually had something that had been processed?

GREG BLUESTEIN: Yes, that — it’s not exactly clear, but they had — one of the suspects’ homes, prosecutors say the informant noticed beakers, they noticed lab equipment, they overheard some of the men talking about building more lab equipment, like a hood, because obviously making ricin is very deadly because the toxin itself is very deadly.

So they were worried about the recipe to make this toxin and whether or not they would fall victim to it as well. But, as I said earlier, the informant was able to somehow get his or her hands on the — on at least a sample of whatever they were making. And it was tested in a Georgia laboratory and found to be — to have traces of ricin in it.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, and very briefly, I gather that one of them said they were trying to follow a plot outlined in some novel by — called, what — by some militia group writer?

GREG BLUESTEIN: Yes, it’s called — yes. It was called “Absolve.”

And it’s from an underground nonfiction novel that was written by a former militia leader in — in Alabama. And one of the — Mr. Thomas said he wanted to carry out what this underground novel had said to do. Now, the author of the novel has said it’s fiction; it’s purely — it’s not meant to inspire any violence or hate, and that he doesn’t want to see this happen, of course.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, bizarre, indeed, as you said.

Well, Greg Bluestein of the Associated Press, thank you.

GREG BLUESTEIN: Thank you.