I Was an Undercover White Supremacist
Schneiderman, R. M., Newsweek
Byline: R. M. Schneiderman
An FBI mole speaks for the first time about life in the seedy world of right-wing terror.
John Matthews had long been a shadowy presence in his son Dan's life. Every six months it was a new city, a new state, a new apartment. Dan, who lived with his mother, suspected something illegal was going on. He was estranged from his father and even used his stepfather's last name, Candland. Once, when Dan was 16, Matthews called him from a pay phone to say he was going underground and might appear on the television show America's Most Wanted one day. Months later, when they reconnected, neither brought it up.
Matthews, who is now 59, recognized how he must have looked to his son: a troubled Vietnam veteran, a paranoid man who wandered between jobs and marriages, despised the government, and always kept a camouflage backpack filled with food, water, and clothing by his bedroom door. "Danny always figured I was trash," Matthews says. "Or a bad person."
Now they were outside the federal courthouse in downtown Salt Lake City; Dan, 33, had no idea why. A grizzled man in a Stetson hat smoking a Toscanelli cigar introduced himself as Jesse Trentadue, attorney at law, and led them into his office across the street. There, Matthews divulged the secret he had harbored for two decades: while his family thought he was hiding from the law, palling around with white supremacists and other antigovernment activists, he was working as an informant for the FBI, posing as an extremist to infiltrate more than 20 groups in an effort to thwart terrorist attacks. "[Dan's] eyes got bigger and bigger," the lawyer recalls. For Dan, the revelation brought sanity to a childhood of mystery and frustration. Finally, he says, "it all made sense."
It is rare for an informant to unmask himself, especially one who has found his way into the violent world of heavily armed bigots. But Matthews had developed a fatal lung condition and a drastically weakened heart, and he wanted his family to know his true identity before it was too late. "I ain't gonna be around for more than a couple of years longer," he says. "So I figure whatever's gonna happen is gonna happen."
Matthews's story, which Newsweek verified through hundreds of FBI documents and several dozen interviews, including conversations with current and former FBI officials, offers a rare glimpse into the murky world of domestic intelligence, and the bureau's struggles to combat right-wing extremism.
No one can forget how Timothy McVeigh set off a bomb in front of a federal building in Oklahoma City in April 19, 1995, killing 168 people including 19 children under the age of 6. FBI efforts to avert another outrage have taken on increased importance in recent years, as fears of Islamic terrorism, a sour economy, expanded federal powers under the Patriot Act, and the nation's first black president have swelled the ranks of extremist groups. Since President Obama's election, the number of right-wing extremist groups--a term that covers a broad array of dissidents ranging from white supremacists to antigovernment militias--has mushroomed from 149 to 824, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Alabama-based civil-rights group.
"What we're seeing today is a resurgence," says Daryl Johnson, the former senior domestic terrorism analyst for the Department of Homeland Security. In 2009, the department issued a report warning that "right-wing extremism is likely to grow in strength." And because today's extremists, unlike their predecessors, have at their disposal online information--bomb-making instructions and terrorist tactics--as well as social-networking tools, the report said, "the consequences of their violence [could be] more severe."
The report, which was quickly withdrawn after an outcry from conservatives, seemed prescient months later when an 88-year-old gunman opened fire on visitors at the U. …