I looked at several accounts of the arrest of the Tennessee skinheads, like this one from the New York Times:
Arrests in Plan to Kill Obama and Black Schoolchildren
and none of the news stories describe exactly how their quote-unquote "plot" was uncovered. The stories DO mention that the "the two men met via the Internet through a mutual friend" and swapped e-mail with each other.
Hmmmm.... Could it be that the feds got wind of these yokels and discovered what they were up to through - gasp - monitoring the internet? Oh the horrors!
The affidavit of complaint against them (PDF)is from the ATF and lists some specifics about how the two guys were casing out homes and a gun dealer to rob and how they shot out a window of a church. The paragraph about their actually apprehension says that the day after shooting the church window they drew "racially motivated words and symbols" on their car and then "were taken into custody by Crockett Co. Sherriff's Office later that night". But it doesn't specify what they were taken into custody
The two thrill-billies now face federal charges for possessing an unregistered firearm, conspiracy to steal firearms from a federally licensced gun dealer, and for making threats against a presidential candidate. None of the articles say there are facing any state charges. And it is not clear from the affidavit of complaint if they were picked up for shooting out that church window or for their planned robberies, including the one where a dog may have scared them off. The affidavit says the ATF agent was contacted by the Sheriff's office to assist in the investigation, but it is not unlikely that it was the Sheriff who was tipped by the feds to check them out.
Plus, if they had just been arrested on suspicion of plans to rob a gun store, and the sawed-off shotgun mentioned in some accounts was then discovered, I think even the dumbest skinheads would probably know to keep quiet about their half-baked sceme against Senator Obama. Specifics like their plan to wear white top hats and tuxedos during their final rampage doesn't sound like something that would be included in a jailhouse confession, but like the weird boastful details that you would rave about in an e-mail exchange or a chat room session.
Also, note in that Rocky Mountain News story about the Denver meth-head conspiracists I linked to earlier that it specifies both that one of the suspects "told friends while doing drugs at a local hotel" that he wanted to shoot Obama during his acceptance speech at Invesco field. But, the story then says these two were NOT being charged with conspiring to kill a presidential candidate because their statements were the "rantings of people under the influence of methamphetamine".
The news stories about the Tennesse skinheads, by contrast, do not specifiy when and in what situation the threats to assassinate Senator Obama were made, but most of the stories specifically say that those two are indeed being charged with making threats to kill a presidential candidate. To me, that says they made the threats in some manner besides drug-fueled or off-the-cuff rantings and ravings. As in e-mails or chat room conversations. Yes, subsequent details may prove my suspicions wrong and it may turn out that the two Tennessee Sheriff's departments may have just been doing their ever-vigilant best to prevent burglaries and the skinheads may have been dumb enough to mouth off about their entire preposterous scheme, white top hats and all, but I won't be surprised if we either don't hear any more details about this case or some e-mail transcripts turn up or are referred to in later proceedings.
So if they were indeed caught because of Echelon or some other surveillance programs, did the feds have a warrant they served on the ISP? If not, had the ISP stood firm and not turned over the records without a warrant, would they be hailed as heroes of civil liberties even though the plot hadn't been stopped and the minor detail of the ISP's non-cooperation was later discovered?
What if these exemplars of human scum had the brains enough to suspect that discussing their plans at home with their primary e-mail accounts might be risky, and had used secondary e-mail accounts from computers at the local public library? Had the feds tried to examine those computers or the library’s server and the director stood firm and refused their warrant-less requests, or had even challenged a warrant and delayed the feds’ computer forensics examination until after some hearing, would the director be similarly feted for protecting patron privacy even if they had accomplished any of their plans?
To vary a legal aphorism, is it better that two low-life skinheads intent on a racial massacre and the assasination of a political candidate go free rather than one innocent man have his e-mail monitored?
I'll sleep better knowing my ISP is letting the feds search my e-mail for suspicious phrases if it keeps guys like these off the streets and prevents what they were planning to attempt. Of course, this whole post is now a prime example of Echelon Salt and so I guess I'll go whole hog and use this Wired Magazine article's suggested e-mail signature file:
ATF DOD WACO RUBY RIDGE OKC OKLAHOMA CITY MILITIA GUN HANDGUN MILGOV ASSAULT RIFLE TERRORISM BOMB DRUG KORESH PROMIS MOSSAD NASA MI5 ONI CID AK47 M16 C4 MALCOLM X REVOLUTION CHEROKEE HILLARY BILL CLINTON GORE GEORGE BUSH WACKENHUT TERRORISTI promise to be very cooperative when the Secret Service calls.