ARE THESE FOLKS REALLY A THREAT TO NATIONAL SECURITY?

Cheryl Burgess, a member of the Wickenburg Town Council, said she had documents and information about the explosion in Oklahoma City.

A self-described Arizona patriot, Burgess is a faithful trooper in the militia culture that President Bill Clinton has blamed for the bombing of the federal building.

Today, Cheryl Burgess is looked at more seriously by people who used to think of her--when they thought of her at all--as hard evidence of the diversity of God's bounty upon this Earth. Once regarded merely as eccentric, this politician is now viewed with alarm.

In fact, two weeks after the bomb went off in Oklahoma City, Burgess was pilloried by a fellow member of the town council for her obsession with U.N. troops, black helicopters, the federal government in general and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in particular. During the tongue-lashing of Burgess, a muscular man sat off to the side and watched the fireworks in Wickenburg's Town Hall. The silent visitor resembled the sketch of the elusive John Doe No. 2. The similarity of the stranger to the likeness of the federal fugitive was so striking that a shaken observer phoned in a tip to the FBI.

Despite the rash of rumors spreading across the landscape, I couldn't simply dismiss the possibility that Cheryl Burgess might know something. It is a fact that Arizona's trailer parks have already coughed up Timothy McVeigh, Steven Colbern, Dennis Kemp Malzac, Michael Fortier and Preston Haney, as well as ersatz John Doe No. 2s Robert Jacks and Gary Land, all of whom have been arrested, detained or questioned closely since the blast. The tin-can homes that sheltered these weapons enthusiasts are all within hailing distance of Councilmember Burgess, fitting neatly inside a roughly 130-mile radius--by western standards, a very small piece of real estate indeed.

After the Oklahoma blast, President Clinton cited the Dungeons and Dragons netherworld of the militias and McVeigh's links to these paramilitary groups as justification for his Omnibus Counterterrorism Act of 1995. As a package, the president's bill plays fast and loose with the constitutional safeguards of our civil liberties. This legislation calls for 1,000 new federal agents, wide-ranging wiretaps, increased access to financial and credit records, and the establishment of a Domestic Counterterrorism Center.

The president has also asked Congress to suspend the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, a law that bars the use of America's armed forces in domestic law enforcement.

The problem with Clinton's finger-pointing at the patriot movement is that no one has been able to demonstrate that Timothy McVeigh is, in fact, part of the militia.

McVeigh has allegedly denied any association with militias. And militias across the country have rejected the idea that the suspected bomber was a fellow patriot.

Nor have federal agents established any firm militia ties to Colbern, Malzac, Fortier, Haney, Jacks and Land.

If the three most prominent targets of the FBI investigation, McVeigh, Fortier and Terry Nichols, have anything in common, it certainly is not the militia: What all three men share are their days together in the U.S. Army.

The pieces in the bombing puzzle, at least as described by President Clinton, do not fit. If Cheryl Burgess had an answer, I wanted to hear it.

When I arrived in Wickenburg, Councilmember Burgess had a seven-page fax and a photograph that she wanted me to review.

The photograph Burgess points to is in the May issue of Soldier of Fortune, attached to a story titled "Wacogate." The black-and-white print on page 50 shows three men, all of whom are identified as government agents, one of whom, the magazine claims, attended the trial of the Branch Davidians with a machine gun hidden under his trench coat.

Burgess says that the "BATF agent, the one with the burp gun," is a dead ringer for Timothy McVeigh.

"Of course, photographs can be misleading, but we've done an analysis of his ear in relation to his jaw," she notes.

Whatever the results might be of Burgess' phrenological survey, it cannot mask the problem that the man in the photo looks about as much like McVeigh as does Burgess herself.

The seven-page fax Burgess possesses was distributed throughout America's militia outposts on April 22, three days after the explosion in Oklahoma City.

It is a remarkable document, part of an alternative communication system that bypasses traditional media and unites the patriot movement by means of ham radio, videotape, fax machine and the Internet. The communiqu‚ has been ignored by the press even though it is read as gospel by the militias.

The directive, labeled "Intelligence Survey," contains a quiver full of barbed allegations: There were two explosions, ten seconds apart, in Oklahoma. The government and the media hid this fact. A third bomb was discovered. A pair of witnesses saw a black helicopter over the top of the federal building shortly before the explosion. The "top personnel" of the BATF and other federal departments were moved out of the building 24 hours before the blast, ensuring that none of the agents or their children would be injured during the explosion.

The writer concludes that a "clandestine inner-federal government plot" was behind the bombing, "thus creating a mental crisis in the minds of everyone . . . "

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