MOUNTAIN SPRING, TEXAS
ON a farm north of Dallas, near a smudge on the map called Mountain Spring, some 100 militia leaders from around the nation gather to plot strategy.
The usual militia trappings are on hand: semiautomatic rifles, reams of constitutionalist literature, pup tents, and men in battle fatigues with black pistols holstered at their thighs.
But this meeting is different. Not only is their archenemy, the FBI, invited, the military paraphernalia are employed mostly as props for camera-toting journalists.
In an apparent tactical shift, many militia leaders seem intent on buffing their political profile - turning from Uzis and Molotov cocktails to the ordinary "weapons" of propaganda used by other grass-roots organizations.
In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, which focused national attention on the militia movement, leaders are moving to sanitize their image and distance themselves from white supremacists and neo-Nazis who are known to participate in such organizations.
The depth of the change was evident at the gathering of national militia "commanders" from 20 states here last weekend. Seven members of the militia federation's executive board sat down with Dallas Federal Buruea of Investigation chief Jim Adams for what they afterwards called "a cordial meeting."
WITH local television-news cameras rolling, conference host Col. Russell Smith of the Texas Constitutional Militia traipsed up a hill with the G-man, who stretched his arm across the camouflaged colonel's shoulders.
The men in fatigues invited the press back into their tents briefly on Saturday to hear half a dozen speakers, including Gene Schroder, a Colorado veterinarian, whose book "Constitution: Fact or Fiction" explains that the War Powers Act bypasses the US Constitution and is one of the hottest selling items in conspiracist circles today.
But even after the press was escorted out, militia leaders and invited sympathizers exhorted the troops to hew a new line.
Colorado State Sen. Charles Duke (R) told the armed audience to lobby for a bill that would require all laws introduced in Congress to cite the constitutional authority for the bill. "What I'm about is peaceful solutions, lawful solutions, constitutional solutions," Senator Duke said.
Bigots were warned to stay away. Mike Vanderboegh, a featured speaker from Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, a small antigun-control group, urged the all-white crowd to lay aside racial and religious animosities. When the chief of a Midwestern militia federation was asked by another man in fatigues what rules he followed in admitting groups for membership, he replied:
"No Aryans, no anti-Semites, no wing nuts.... The first time I see a swastika, the first time I hear the word 'nigger,' the first time I hear the word 'Jew' in a bad way, that's it. They're out. They're done," he declared.
Strategic discussion did not center on the teachings of Karl von Clausewitz or Mao, but a funding scheme. If they heed the instructions of their leaders, the delegates will return to their units this week and order their men to switch long-distance carriers, not to buy night-vision goggles. Through a front organization, the militias will receive a 4 percent royalty from the earmarked telephone receipts.
The common ideology holding together the nation's disparate militias is the belief that it's their duty to make war on federal and state authorities if and when the United States faces a foreign takeover or is subverted by internal foes.
But some say, as Dr. Schroder did, that has already happened. They point to the siege of the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas, or trace the subversion back to the secession of the South. The crux of the Mountain Spring meeting came when a Kentucky delegate pressed the question, "Where do we draw the line?"
"The No. 1 thing that I think that everybody better get through their head is that you'd best don't draw a line in the sand that you're not prepared to defend," responded a commander from a New Mexico militia unit.
When, as has already occurred, members of an allied militia face arrest or searches, the duty of their leadership, another delegate explained, "is not a call to arms, it's a call to get on the phone."
"What we are going to do is bury Washington - in fax paper," said a Midwestern commander.
But some analysts of the militia movement are concerned that rather than changing tactics, the participants are splitting into those prepared to commit terrorist "acts of war" and those who want to operate in the political realm.
The strategy advocated by the National Commanders conference should be evident this weekend, when militia units turn out to burn UN flags to protest ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. The UN is seen as spearheading a "New World Order" of government that is usurping the American Constitution. The militiamen will wear their fatigues for the cameras but are expected to leave their guns at home.