On December 8, when Eric Holder testified before the House Judiciary Committee about Operation Fast and Furious, the bungled federal attempt to combat gun smuggling to Mexico, his testimony was met with frequent snickers and occasional hostility. The source wasn't Republican committee members, but rather a blogger seated at the press table. Wearing a homemade press pass in a National Rifle Association badge-holder, Mike Vanderboegh had arrived at the hearing toting an Army-issue laptop case that appeared capable of withstanding a roadside bomb.
A large, ruddy fellow with white hair and a mischievous smile, he had played a key role in turning Fast and Furious into a national scandal. From his home in Pinson, Alabama, Vanderboegh writes a little-known, far-right blog called Sipsey Street Irregulars. Last December, in a post titled, "Border Patrol agent killed with ATF-smuggled AR? Some ATF agents seem to think so," he reported on rumors flying around law enforcement circles about the death of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry. Two weeks earlier, Terry and his team had been tracking a Mexican "rip crew"—who specialize in robbing drug smugglers—in Nogales, Arizona. Shots were fired and Terry was hit in the back. He died the next day.
Vanderboegh reported that agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives believed that the gun that killed Terry had been part of an anti-gun smuggling operation—later known publicly as Operation Fast and Furious. Vanderboegh suggested that ATF agents had encouraged "snitches" to purchase hundreds of guns in the US and smuggle them into Mexico to track the weapons to high-level drug kingpins. He quoted a website set up by anonymous disgruntled ATF agents: It "appears that ATF may be one of the largest suppliers of assault rifles to the Mexican cartels!" one wrote.
Using what he calls the "desert telegraph" (an anonymous email system) to communicate with whistleblowers, Vanderboegh says he helped arrange for ATF agents to talk to the staff of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who was then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Department of Justice. Later, Vanderboegh connected the whistleblowers with the staff of Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who took over as the committee's chair in January.
Acting on tips from the whistleblowers, congressional investigators turned up evidence that the ATF had allowed straw buyers in Arizona to purchase more than 2,000 high-powered weapons and smuggle them into Mexico in order to follow them up the chain to high-level drug traffickers. Yet hundreds of the guns disappeared in the process, some turning up later at grisly crime scenes in Mexico. So far, the missing arms have been connected to about 200 Mexican deaths.
Congressional Republicans, notably Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, have pursued the scandal relentlessly. At least 56 members of Congress have called for Holder to resign over of his handling of the debacle, as have presidential contenders Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, and Jon Huntsman. And the scandal has already claimed the jobs of the acting head of the ATF and the US attorney for Arizona.
The affair has been quite a coup for Vanderboegh, who is better known for inciting violence than for exposing wrongdoing. When Obama's health care reform bill passed in March 2010, Vanderboegh encouraged readers to throw rocks through the windows of Democratic Party headquarters, writing:
[I]f you wish to send a message that [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi and her party cannot fail to hear, break their windows. Break them NOW. Break them and run to break again. Break them under cover of night. Break them in broad daylight. Break them and await arrest in willful, principled civil disobedience. Break them with rocks. Break them with slingshots. Break them with baseball bats. But BREAK them.
A few people heeded his call, smashing the windows of a handful of congressional offices, including the Tucson office of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who was shot and seriously wounded last January.
"We will not disarm. You cannot convince us. You cannot intimidate us. You can try to kill us, if you think you can. But remember, we’ll shoot back."
In November, Vanderboegh made national news again, this time for his alleged role in inspiring a domestic terrorism plot. The FBI alleged that a handful of Georgia senior citizens had met at a Waffle House to plot a domestic bioterrorism attack. When they were arrested, word leaked that they'd been inspired by Vanderboegh's unpublished novel, Absolved, in which underground militia groups plan to assassinate law enforcement and judicial officials to protest gun control and gay marriage. Vanderboegh has called the book "a combination field manual, technical manual, and call to arms for my beloved gunnies of the armed citizenry." (Parts of the book are available online.)
Vanderboegh is unapologetic about his advocacy for armed resistance against what he views as a repressive government. He describes himself as a member of the Three Percent movement. It's a reference to those who fought in the American Revolution, a minority that Vanderboegh claims "never amounted to more than 3% of the colonists." On his website, Vanderboegh sums up the doctrine of the Three Percent: "We will not disarm. You cannot convince us. You cannot intimidate us. You can try to kill us, if you think you can. But remember, we'll shoot back."
Fiery rhetoric about resistance and revolution isn't new for Vanderboegh, though the origins of his activism may seem a bit incongruous. "I used to be a communist," he says. Vanderboegh, who is in his late 50s, claims he joined the anti-war movement in 1967, first with Students for a Democratic Society, then the Socialist Workers Party, and eventually the Maoist Progressive Labor Party.