RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The FBI released its latest data for hate crimes last week, and 2017 was a very bad year. There were more than 7,000 incidents of crimes that can be attributed to hate. That number marks an increase for the third year in a row. And it is the third-highest number since the FBI started collecting this data in 1992. This comes after a string of hate crimes, including a white supremacist's slaying of a black couple in Kentucky and the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. ProPublica reporter A.C. Thompson has spent several years reporting on the far right and white nationalism, and his latest documentary in collaboration with "Frontline" PBS is called "Documenting Hate: New American Nazis." It airs tonight, and A.C. Thompson joins me now to talk about it. Thanks so much for being here.
A C THOMPSON: Thanks for having me on.
MARTIN: Your latest reporting, this project, really focuses in on a group that calls itself Atomwaffen. Explain who they are.
THOMPSON: Atomwaffen, or Atomwaffen, means nuclear weapons in German, and the Atomwaffen Division is an American group that started in Tampa, Fla., in about 2015 that openly idolizes Adolf Hitler, the Third Reich and all the sort of Nazi leaders of the 20th century. Their goal is the violent overthrow of the U.S. government and to start a race war that will come afterwards.
MARTIN: So can you just place them into the broader context of hate groups in America?
THOMPSON: They are, I would say, probably the most extreme hate group that's currently operating today. And it's a small group of people. They're secretive. They don't let their names get out. They organize primarily online and then have real-life, military-type trainings, weapons trainings, combat kind of training. But you really don't need that many people to do horrific and insane acts of violence.
MARTIN: You report that this group, Atomwaffen, actively recruits from the U.S. military. How do they do that? How do they infiltrate the military?
THOMPSON: A couple things have happened. The founder of the group was a guy named Brandon Russell, and he was a Florida National Guardsmen in the Army National Guard. He was passing on his military training to his comrades in the group. Other people we know enlisted as well in the services basically to steal war material and to develop that military training. We believe that the group is reaching out through online channels, through chats, through a lot of different ways, to young men in their 20s who are either going into the military, currently in the military or have just come out of it.
MARTIN: What did the Pentagon say about this? Because you tried to broach this with Pentagon officials.
THOMPSON: Yeah. We tried to do an interview with the Pentagon for months and months and months, and nothing came of it. Basically, what they say is we're working very hard on this. We are aggressively policing our particular directives and regulations within the services that say you cannot be a member of a white supremacist group and serve in the armed forces. They say that there have been 27 reports of domestic extremist activity within the ranks over the last five years. What other people tell us who are experts in this field and really watching it closely is they think the numbers are likely a lot higher than that.
MARTIN: And we should say even though you didn't get that interview, a Pentagon official did ultimately release a statement to you, which is where you got that information.
THOMPSON: Right. And the Pentagon also sent a letter to Congressman Keith Ellison that details what they're doing. And I should say, you know, my father served in the U.S. Army. My grandfather served in the U.S. Army. I'm not a person who's out to disparage the armed forces. That's the last thing I want to do. I think what I want to point out is that there has been this very small corps of people associated with the armed forces over years who have gotten involved in the white power movement and that we need to be cognizant of that.
MARTIN: At one point in this process, you sat down with a man purported to be the intellectual leader of Atomwaffen. James Mason is his name. And he told you that he believes - and I'm paraphrasing here, but he believes essentially that President Donald Trump has opened the door for his kind of ideology.
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JAMES MASON: Trump winning that election by surprise - and it was a surprise - I now believe anything could be possible.
MARTIN: Can you explain more about what he said?
THOMPSON: Yeah. So this was a really surprising thing for us because James Mason is a guy who, for 30 years, has been advocating for race war, terrorism and the like. And so when we went to talk to him, that's what we thought he would want to talk about, and he did to a certain extent. And then he said, but, you know, now we have Donald Trump in office, and I'm really rethinking my philosophy, my ideology. And that was pretty surprising to us.
MARTIN: You didn't ask, if I remember correctly. He brought up President Trump.
THOMPSON: Right. And for us, it was not what we expected. We expected him to say, oh, you know, Donald Trump is not extreme enough for me. But instead he said, no, this is a guy that I see a lot of potential in and I think he can be an ally for us. He can be an asset for our movement.
MARTIN: After spending so much time in this pretty dark world and trying to reach out to government officials, what is your takeaway? I mean, do you think the federal government is doing enough to combat these kinds of groups and this kind of ideology?
THOMPSON: We know that there are FBI agents and federal prosecutors who are really going after some of these characters. We've seen eight federal prosecutions of white power gang members who were active in Charlottesville and at other riots and melees. But at the same time, I have a concern that since 9/11, that's really where our attention has been focused, on sort of terrorist actors coming in from abroad. And I think that there has not been a lot of energy put towards the type of characters that we're documenting in our film who have a very American ideology that comes right from this country.
MARTIN: The "Frontline" and ProPublica joint investigation, "Documenting Hate: New American Nazis," premieres tonight on PBS stations and online at pbs.org/frontline. You can read related reporting at propublica.org A.C. Thompson with ProPublica and PBS, thanks so much for talking with us. We appreciate it.
THOMPSON: Thank you.
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