“His response was to fight it with the only weapons at hand—passive resistance and open displays of contempt.” ― Kurt Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan
That One Time the FBI Got Caught Financing, and Encouraging Hate Speech. Jut one time though….just one.
NOVEMBER 29, 2009, 9:10 AM LAST UPDATED: THURSDAY, DECEMBER 24, 2009, 2:21 PM
Records show feds financed hate speech of ultra-right radio host Hal ‘Valhalla’Turner for years
BY MIKE KELLY
They called him “Valhalla.”
But it was more than a nickname.
For more than five years, Hal Turner of North Bergen lived a double life.
The public knew him as an ultra-right-wing radio talk show host and Internet blogger with an audience of neo-Nazis and white supremacists attracted to his scorched-earth racism and bare-knuckles bashing of public figures. But to the FBI, and its expanding domestic counter-terror intelligence operations in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Turner was “Valhalla” — his code name as an informant who spied on his own controversial followers.
Turner’s clandestine past was confirmed this past summer when he was jailed on charges that he made threats on his blog against three federal judges in Chicago. In court after his arrest, federal prosecutors acknowledged Turner’s FBI ties but downplayed his importance and even described him as “unproductive.”
But an investigation by The Record — based on government documents, e-mails, court records and almost 20 hours of jailhouse interviews with Turner — shows that federal authorities made frequent use of Turner in its battle against domestic terrorism.
As Turner took to his radio show and blog to say that those who opposed his extremist views deserve to die, he received thousands of dollars from the FBI to report on such groups as the Aryan Nations and the white supremacist National Alliance, and even a member of the Blue Eyed Devils skinhead punk band. Later, he was sent undercover to Brazil where he reported a plot to send non-military supplies to anti-American Iraqi resistance fighters. Sometimes he signed “Valhalla” on his FBI payment receipts instead of his own name.
His dual life of shock jock and informant offers a window into the murky realm of domestic intelligence in the years after the Sept. 11 terror attacks — in particular, the difficult choices for the FBI in penetrating controversial fringe groups with equally controversial informants.
In interviews, conducted before Turner was released on bail, he said the FBI coached him to make racist, anti-Semitic and other threatening statements and now he feels double-crossed by the bureau after his arrest. The documents reviewed by The Record, however, show repeated instances of federal agents admonishing Turner for his extremism.
Federal prosecutors in Newark and Chicago declined to respond to Turner’s claims, as did FBI officials. “We do not comment on matters before the courts and will not address Mr. Turner’s allegations in the press,” said the FBI’s Weysan Dun, who runs the bureau’s Newark field office.
Turner’s “Valhalla” life will likely be on display this week when he is scheduled to go on trial for his alleged blog threats against three federal appeals court judges in Chicago who upheld a law banning handguns. The trial, originally set for Chicago, was switched to Brooklyn, with a judge flying in from Louisiana.
The trial may have its share of political intrigue. Turner’s defense attorney, Michael Orozco, said he plans to subpoena Governor-elect Chris Christie to testify about whether he advised the FBI about Turner while Christie was U.S. attorney in Newark. On Friday, Orozco filed a motion to dismiss the case, accusing the government of “outrageous conduct.”
But the center of the court battle will likely be the story of Hal Turner and his FBI connections, which began in 2003 with the Newark-based Joint Terrorism Task Force, and continued on and off until this year.
Rumors of Turner’s FBI work surfaced two years ago after unknown Internet hackers electronically broke into his Web site and found e-mails between Turner and an FBI agent. Turner never acknowledged his FBI role until after his arrest in June — and then with a mix of anger and chagrin.
“Imagine my surprise,” he wrote in one of several letters from jail to The Record, “when agents from the very FBI that trained and paid me came to my house to arrest me.”
In a memo only two years earlier, the FBI said Turner “has proven highly reliable and is in a unique position to provide vital information on multiple subversive domestic organizations.” The memo went on to say that Turner’s “statistical accomplishments include over 100 subjects identified, over 10 acts of violence prevented and multiple subjects arrested.”
“I was not some street snitch,” Turner said in one of several lengthy interviews at the Hudson County Jail, where he was kept until the terms of his bail were worked out in October — terms that prevented him from talking to reporters after his release. “I was a deep undercover intelligence operative.”
Misgivings on both sides
Whatever his role, one thing is clear: The relationship between Turner and the FBI often was rocky, with both sides cutting ties several times.
In March 2005, Turner abruptly quit. In a letter to his FBI handlers, he cited a “complete failure” by the agency “to achieve the goals for which I began the relationship,” the “dismal lack of arrests,” the failure to track down a “threat to kill me and my family” and “exploitation” by the FBI “to interfere with content of my Internet Web site.”
By June, however, Turner was again on the FBI payroll. The FBI, meanwhile, harbored its own doubts about Turner.
Five days after Turner’s March 2005 letter, an internal FBI memo summarized rising concerns that his rhetoric was too controversial and possibly dangerous.
“Is he a big mouth? Yes,” the memo said. “Does he say really deplorable things? Yes. Is he a physical threat to anyone? I don’t think so.”
Records show the FBI continued this kind of questioning throughout its connection to Turner — valuing his ties to right-wing hate groups, but also worrying that his audience might follow up on his violence rhetoric.
In a July 2007 memo, Turner’s primary FBI handler, Special Agent Stephen Haug, wrote that Turner “will continue to be admonished in the strongest possible terms and on a periodic basis about his rhetoric and the potential of it inciting acts of violence.”
Haug went on to say that Turner would be “instructed to utilize his celebrity status to insure he continues to remind those who follow his rhetoric that such rhetoric is not intended to incite violence.”
“In balance,” Haug wrote, “this source’s value outweighs the discomfort associated with source’s rhetoric. Source’s unique access provides important intelligence which, if lost, would be irreplaceable.”
Turner, meanwhile, often tried to assure the FBI that his shock jock rhetoric was not serious. “The audience loves the rip-roaring radio psycho,” he wrote in one e-mail to the FBI. “They literally throw money at it. Just be confident that the personality you hear (or hear about) on radio is not real life. I have zero intention of doing anything stupid.”
Nonetheless, Turner’s statements were closely watched.
In February 2008, in the midst of the presidential primary season, Turner attracted the attention of federal officials when he turned against then-Democratic candidate Barack Obama.
“I’m starting to come to the realization that it may be up to a sole person, acting alone, to make certain this guy is never allowed to hold the most powerful office in the world,” Turner wrote on his Web site. He later removed the statement.
But later that year, court records show that he contacted federal authorities to say that he had heard of a possible assassination plot by white supremacists against the president-elect.
“I didn’t like Barack Obama,” Turner explained in an interview. “But he won the election.”
Seven months after the possible threat to Obama, Turner was in FBI handcuffs — for allegedly threatening the Chicago judges.
“Let me be the first to say this plainly: These judges deserve to be killed,” Turner wrote on his blog on June 2. “Their blood will replenish the tree of liberty.”
Turner also posted photos of the judges, their work phone numbers and office addresses as well as a map of the courthouse that pointed out “anti-truck bomb barriers.”
“The word ‘deserve’ is just an opinion,” Turner later told The Record. As for posting the photos of the judges, he added: “I can’t tell you to this day how sorry I am.”
Even if he wins his federal case, Turner’s legal problems will not be over. In June, Connecticut authorities charged Turner with inciting violence against state officials who supported a proposed state law to give Roman Catholic parishioners greater control over church finances.
In each case, Turner contends his words are protected as free speech under the First Amendment. Turner’s attorney, Orozco, adds that other federal prosecutors routinely ignored his outlandish statements. “He has made other controversial remarks about judges, none of which have ever been prosecuted,” wrote Orozco in a legal brief.
“I never intended for anybody to feel threatened,” Turner said.
Longing to be heard
Whatever his intentions, it remains unclear who the real Hal Turner is.
A fraud? A serious threat to homeland security? A white supremacist? A loyal citizen trying to help the FBI? A radio showman trying to build an audience — and income — with shocking statements?
After he was arrested by FBI agents in June, Turner was sent on a journey that took him to jails in Newark, Oklahoma and Chicago — often in solitary confinement. By late September, he was transferred back to New Jersey and sent to the Hudson County Jail in Kearny. In all, he spent 119 days behind bars.
In the interviews at the Hudson County Jail, Turner offered many glimpses of his personality and motivation.
“My country needed me,” he said when asked why he accepted the FBI’s offer in June 2003 to become an informant. “I’m a loyal, patriotic decent American citizen.”
But why did he say — or hint — that some judges and other officials should be killed? Turner blames the FBI, saying that while agents never said he could threaten judges, they coached him on the limits of what he could say. As a result, Turner said he felt he had wide latitude.
“I was given specific instructions,” he said. “Here, I am in prison, betrayed.”
In one of his more controversial statements, Turner gloated over the murder of the husband and mother of a federal judge in Chicago in 2005. But Turner described his rhetoric as fake, arguing he hoped it “would solidify my anti-government credentials” among ultra-right-wing groups he was spying on.
As for hanging out with neo-Nazis and skinheads, Turner said, “That’s not me. It never has been.”
Raised in Ridgefield Park, the 47-year-old Turner labored more than a decade in a variety of positions with several moving-van companies. In 1988, while working for a moving company in Atlanta, Turner was arrested on a drug possession charge. In interviews, he said he had a cocaine addiction at the time and checked into a rehab program.
By the early 1990s, Turner moved to North Bergen and worked as a real estate agent. Within a few years, however, he began to dabble in politics, trying to beef up the Republican Party in overwhelmingly Democratic Hudson County. He also was a campaign manager in New Jersey for Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan.
Politics seemed to offer Turner something he never realized he had — a voice and a need to speak out on hot topics. Now, however, several close associates question whether that voice is authentic or just the work of someone looking for the limelight.
In 1997, when Ramapo College Finance Professor Murray Sabrin ran for governor on a libertarian platform, he hired Turner to manage his campaign. Turner was a frequent caller on WABC’s popular talk radio shows with Bob Grant and Sean Hannity — “Hal from North Bergen,” as he came to be known.
Turner surely had a conservative flair, especially on such issues as abortion and immigration. But Sabrin noticed a complete shift after Turner started his own talk radio show. In particular, Sabrin, who is Jewish, found some of Turner’s remarks to be anti-Semitic.
“People have a public face and a private face,” said Sabrin. “Everything that he is doing now is a complete 180-degree shift. It’s totally opposite from what I knew. I don’t know where this is coming from. I certainly wouldn’t have tolerated it.”
For several years, the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based civil rights group, has regularly monitored Turner’s radio broadcasts and blog. Indeed, the center was one of the first organizations to raise questions that Turner might be an FBI informant.
Hearing now that Turner admits to being an informant, the center’s director of research, Heidi Beirich, was especially critical of the FBI. “We’ve never seen anything like this with informants. It’s essentially idiotic on the part of the FBI. Anybody who spent two seconds looking at Hal Turner’s Web site would know he is a wild hare,” she said.
Indeed, Turner’s own recounting of his life with the FBI does not always mirror what records show he did.
Turner, for example, says the FBI asked him to participate in a mission to plug leaks of information inside the Department of Justice to a variety of groups including the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti Defamation League. Turner also says the FBI asked him to specifically criticize such African-American leaders as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
“I was supposed to be a counterbalance to Sharpton,” Turner said.
Officially, the FBI declined comment on those unproven stories by Turner. The documents bear no trace of those operations.
Expedition to Brazil
Unofficially, FBI and other federal officials expressed a mix of dismay and outright anger when told of Turner’s claims of being coached to make provocative statements.
“Absurd,” said one. Another added: “And pigs will fly beginning with the next full moon. It never happened.”
During interviews with The Record, Turner was at times unclear on some details. FBI records indicate, for example, that he did not become an informant until June 2003; Turner originally said he was recruited by federal agents in 2002, but later said he was mistaken.
Along with Haug of the FBI, his other regular contact was Leonard Nerbetski, a New Jersey State Police detective assigned to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.
Requests to interview Haug and Nerbetski were turned town by the FBI and by the state police.
In an early communication, Turner reported to the FBI about a meeting in Elmwood Park by the National Alliance. A few months after that, FBI records show that Turner was reaching out to several national leaders of the alliance.
FBI memos indicate that the bureau had appropriated as much as $100,000 for Turner’s work as an informant.
“It was good money,” said Turner, who would not say how much he was ultimately paid by the FBI.
Turner said he was earning about $15,000 a month from his suddenly popular radio show and blog.
As 2004 wore on, Turner found himself reporting to the FBI about a possible theft of evidence in a Bergen County drug case and about an attempt to set up a chapter of the Aryan Nations in northern New Jersey.
A year later, with the FBI paying for his visa and passport renewal, Turner embarked on his most ambitious mission — to confer with a wealthy white supremacist in Brazil who was considering making a $1 million donation to his American counterparts.
While in Brazil, Turner also reported meeting a World War II German Luftwaffe flying ace and linking up with a representative of the Brazilian Arab Society, who discussed a plan to ship $10 million in consumer goods to anti-American Iraqi resistance fighters.
After Turner returned to New Jersey, the records show that the FBI investigated the Arab Society representative and even reached out to U.S. officials in Brazil for help in monitoring his activities. But it’s not clear if the $10 million shipment was attempted.
The $1 million donation also never materialized, records show. The Brazilian benefactor backed out of the deal when an American white supremacist did not accompany Turner on the trip.
Records indicate the FBI wanted Turner to return to Brazil to spy on white-supremacist training there. But Turner never went. While in Brazil, Turner said, he carried a gun for protection, which was not authorized by the FBI.
Only a few weeks after returning to the United States from Brazil, Turner again found controversy. In a radio broadcast, he targeted African-Americans.
“A full day of violence against blacks would be a really nice thing,” he said.
Turner went on to call for “lynchings, church burnings, drive-by shootings and bombings to put these subhuman animals back in their place,” according to a report complied by the Anti-Defamation League.
The episode illustrates the complicated relationship between the FBI and Turner. Despite Turner’s racist radio rhetoric, the FBI also valued his undercover work — and was apparently willing to take a risk with him again — and pay him, too.
For example, a July 2005 memo by the FBI said Turner had been paid $10,365 in the previous fiscal year and that he “provided information which continues to be highly accurate and sensitive.”
Turner continued to reach out intermittently to the FBI — with tips including a possible KKK murder plot — until June 2, 2009, the day he posted the alleged threats on his blog about the Chicago judges.
In an e-mail that day to the FBI, Turner says he has heard reports that agents had interviewed skinheads and others about him.
“Am I unapproachable?” Turner asked in the e-mail. “Geez, I’d think by now I would have proved myself. It’s not like I’m gonna go postal or anything.”
Three weeks later, Turner was arrested.
Four months after that, Turner, unshaven and wearing frayed green prison garb and fumbling with a loose tooth, sat in an interview room at the Hudson County Jail and pondered his journey — from shock jock to FBI informant to inmate charged with a serious federal crime.
“I can’t believe this is happening to me,” he said.
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