Print - Counter-Terrorism Is Getting Complicated - Esquire
He had become a little old man. The “little” part he could handle; Fred Thomas had been small all his life, and had countered it with a rigorous self-belief. The old part was harder. He was sick, for one thing. He had kidney disease. He had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He dragged around a tank of oxygen everywhere he went. He had two flights of stairs in his new house and couldn’t make it up either of them without stopping halfway. He had torn rotator cuffs and couldn’t lift his arms over his head. He had always been a man of action, and now he was enduring the irrelevancy of old age in a place where he was unknown. He retired from Lockheed Martin on June 1, 2008, and moved from his home in Fredericksburg, Virginia, to the new house on the dirt road in Georgia a month later. Charlotte insists that he loved both his retirement and the place to which he’d retired; that his son and his family lived not an hour away; that they spent their days together, exploring the quaint nearby towns, like Helen and Dahlonega, and working in the garden. “Oh, he loved it,” Charlotte says. “We love it. We still do.”
No, he didn’t sleep very well. But then, he never had. He’d always been a night owl, Charlotte says, and now in retirement he had the chance to stay on the computer into the morning and sleep late into the day. He did not tell Charlotte what he did on his computer; she did not ask, nor think to. He had never been one to keep secrets. But he had one now. He’d developed a disease more wasting even than the disease that caused him to drag around an oxygen tank like a cold metal curse. He couldn’t tell Charlotte about it, though, for the disease was regret. He was alone with it, and two nights before Christmas 2006, he shared it in a post submitted to the online forum of his old nuclear submarine, the James Madison. It was called “Reflections,” and he wrote of having been young and “seeing older people through the years and thinking that those older people were years away from me and that winter was so far off that I could not fathom it or imagine fully what it would be like….But, here it is…wife retired and she’s really getting gray…she moves slower and I see an older woman now. She’s in better shape than me…but, I see the great change….Not the one I married who was young and vibrant…but, like me, her age is beginning to show and we are now those older folks that we used to see and never thought we’d be.
“Yes, I have regrets. There are things I wish I hadn’t done…things I should have done. But indeed, there are many things I’m happy to have done. It’s all in a lifetime….So, if you’re not in your winter yet…let me remind you, that it will be here faster than you think. So, whatever you would like to accomplish in your life, please do it quickly!”
He had an answer to the disease of regret, however, and it was the same answer that a lot of men find, especially through the Internet: fantasy.
He’d always been a “conservative Republican,” his wife says, who’d gone from Limbaugh to Hannity to Beck, and now started commenting on the Web sites of those who shared his enthusiasm for guns and for Second Amendment absolutism. One he enjoyed in particular was the blog of a former Alabama militiaman named Mike Vanderboegh, who not only wrote for “the 3 percent” of Americans who would shoot back when the government comes to seize their guns but also began posting chapters from his novel Absolved. Styled by Vanderboegh as a “warning,” the novel is instead an exercise in wish fulfillment in which virtuous gun owners start a civil war by resisting the effete, decadent, and inevitably corrupt forces of a collectivist government out to steal the weapons that are the only true emblems of a free citizenry. It is no accident that an overwhelming technical facility is the great equalizer between the gun owners and the government, nor that most of the book’s heroes are fat, sick, and old.
It was not long before Thomas found the Liberty Forum, which is the message board of the Militia of Georgia. Mostly under the name “Ahab627,” he began posting sternly eloquent warnings about government tyranny, and also writing of “hypothetical” situations by which fictional dreams might be realized. Two days before Christmas 2008 — and almost two years to the day after posting about his disillusion watching himself and his wife grow old — he became a man of action again through an act of imagination. While denying actual intention, he envisioned the ease with which the United States government could be overthrown by a program of “patriotic assassinations” carried out by groups of five “committed citizens” executing “lightning strikes” against “problem” politicians. He was not disciplined for this by the moderator nor rebuked by other Liberty Forum posters. Instead he was praised for his “gonads,” and finally, on January 2, 2009, six months after moving to Georgia and eighteen days before the inauguration of Barack Obama, he celebrated the New Year by joining the Militia of Georgia, also known as the MOG:
“My name is Frederick W. Thomas RMC (SS), USN, Ret. and I’m new to this forum. I’ve seen the handwriting on the wall and I believe what I’ve read. Most of my adult life has been spent in service to America, and here in the twilight of my years I find that my sacrifice and the blood I’ve shed for this country has led to the enslavement of me and mine. The Constitution I swore to uphold is being abrogated by the very government that called for service and I wonder if there will be my America much longer.
“I’ve decided I can sit idly by no longer and so freely join with you to do something about this intolerable situation. If membership here-in makes me a member of the Militia of Georgia, then I’ve succeeded.”
He worried that he was too old for membership; he needn’t have. He’d stumbled on the secret of the militia movement: that it ignores virtually every reality but the self-actualizing realities of the Internet. It didn’t matter that Fred Thomas could barely hold a gun, much less shoot one; he could post, couldn’t he, and so he discovered what Jimmy Wynn, the nominal “commander” of the MOG, had discovered ten years earlier, when, as he says, “the message board replaced the meeting, and suddenly anybody with a keyboard could call himself a militiaman.” Wynn discovered this the hard way when Joe Sims came across the river from South Carolina. After he won an election that displaced Dan Roberts as “captain” of “the Toccoa Unit” of the MOG, he set his sights on Wynn. “Joe Sims was a little more tech-savvy than I was back then,” Wynn says, “and he wanted to start a Militia of Georgia message board. I blindly trusted him, and one morning I wake up and I’m locked out of the message boards and he’s the leader of the whole thing.”
What Wynn discovered to his detriment, however, Fred Thomas discovered to his advantage. Though suited to no activity other than the virtual kind, he began to rise in the esteem of the MOG’s ranks by virtue of his energy and the unstinting posts he wrote with military care. Did anyone know he was just a little old man? No, and he found himself in enthusiastic parlay with some of the more radical voices of the MOG, such as “getawayman,” who liked to follow quotes from liberal politicians with quips like “far as I’m concerned just another round in the mag babe” and “just waiting to empty a few mags!!!!!!!!!!” Now Thomas’s retirement actually served as a benefit, as he had enough time on his hands to volunteer for an “officer” position that no one else wanted. Jimmy Wynn had to struggle to restore his leadership of the Militia of Georgia after Joe Sims unaccountably disappeared; but within months of joining the MOG, Fred Thomas had become Wynn’s second in command — his executive officer, or XO — just by raising his virtual hand.
It didn’t last long. Wynn has spent half his life in power struggles with half the militia members of Georgia, and Fred Thomas was no different. He objected to Wynn’s moderation on the issue of immigration and his opposition to the Iraq War. Wynn met with him face-to-face and noticed that Fred Thomas in person was not exactly the rational radical of the message board. “He tries to be head honcho of everything. He’s pretty aggressive.” Thomas resigned from the MOG by early 2010, but instead of fading away he called Dan Roberts in Toccoa. They’d both had fallings out with Jimmy Wynn, and they were united in their disgruntlement. What’s more, they had an idea for a new kind of militia, smaller, more purposeful, more covert, more selective, more imbued with vision. Fred Thomas reached out to “getawayman.” Dan Roberts reached out to Joe Sims.
First, to get the money thing out of the way: Joe Sims wanted to get paid. He had already sent me an e-mail telling me that he wouldn’t give me an interview. He would, however, get on the phone to negotiate, and a few hours after I met Charlotte Thomas, Joe Sims called with his pitch.
He said, “I’ve had my life threatened, I’ve had my car keyed, I’ve had my tires slashed.”
He said, “I’ve had Fox up my behind, I’ve had CNN up my behind, I’ve had BBC up my behind. Ev-er-y-body wants to talk to me.”
He said, “I’m not sticking my nose in any publication unless I’m getting paid. Just to keep me on the safe side. I’m going to use that money to relocate me and fight the problems that I have. I’ve spent the last year of my life in this mess. I’ve been in the militia movement for twenty years. I know ev-er-y-body. I know everybody that’s considered a domestic terrorist, I know people that should be considered domestic terrorists but aren’t yet because they haven’t hit the radar. I mean, I am probably one of the most connected militia people on the planet at this minute. I know everybody’s dirty little deeds and I have become persona non grata….”
He wound up talking to me for an hour and fifteen minutes, with no compensation. He was fed up with the feds — “They don’t return my calls. They don’t return text messages. They don’t return e-mails. When I called a certain government agency and told them who I was and that I needed to speak to someone, two hours later my handler was calling me and was mad at me for making the phone call.” His handler wasn’t going to like him giving an interview, either, but Sims didn’t care because to his mind, his handler hadn’t been taking care of him. “I’ll probably be threatened with something, I might go to jail,” he said. “I’ve been threatened with tampering with evidence, lying to a federal officer, blah blah blah blah blah. I just want to be left in a little hole someplace. I don’t want to be Joe Federal Informant.”
But his complaint about the government in general and his handler in particular was just that — a complaint. In the end he talked because he’s a talker, and he wanted to explain himself. He’d been shamed in Anderson — “The typical, ‘Oh, he’s a pedophile, blah blah blah blah blah.’ ” But that, he said, “has kind of died out. None of my ex-stepchildren are still in town, so I don’t have to deal with that lie. My ex-wife has apparently moved and gotten remarried, so I don’t have to deal with her anymore. Everything I have to deal with now is little people coming to town, wanting to ask me about this and ask me about that.”
The shame of the pedophile, then, has given way to the more precarious shame of the snitch. “I’m concerned for my safety every time I walk outside. I’m very well known in this town. I’m concerned when I go to the grocery store. I’m concerned when I stop and get gas.” But of course the two brands of opprobrium are intertwined: People think he’s a snitch because they think he’s a pedophile. They think that he volunteered to rat out his fellow militiamen in order to get out from under the charges that he sexually molested his stepdaughters. He can’t address the alleged crimes of Fred Thomas and Dan Roberts without addressing his own. And so he told me:
“I never touched my daughters. That was a case of vindictive prosecution.”
“I can prove [the child porn] isn’t mine. It was all on the hard drive I had that me and my brother-in-law got free on Craigslist in New Jersey. It was not on the computer I used personally.”
“I didn’t go to Maryland. I was living in New Jersey. I was working for Domino’s Pizza. I was picked up on highway 95 going south. I was heading back to South Carolina to answer the charges.”
Indeed, Joe Sims is an unusual government asset in that he is a government asset who has not pleaded guilty to the charges against him. He is fighting them and trying to prove that the stepdaughters who stepped up to accuse him are liars. At the same time he is fighting to make people believe that the only reason he told the feds about the plot to kill public officials is that he knew it was happening and was a concerned citizen. And yet both claims are connected, because he didn’t try to contact the FBI until he went to jail and had the necessary motivation. What would have happened if he hadn’t alerted the feds?
“If they’d pulled this off, tens of thousands of people would have died. So I did the right thing.”
Why did he do it?
“To keep people from dying.”
You really think that would have happened?
“It would have.”
Are you a hero?
“I’m just a grunt. I’m the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time who did the right thing.”
One of the peculiarities of the federal policy of preemption, however, is that the right thing is usually inextricable from the wrong thing. And one of the things that the story of Joe Sims asks us to believe is that our safety was purchased by his sin — that we were spared because two girls in Anderson, South Carolina, say they were not.