November 28, 2008 in City

After storied career, agent retires

FBI took Norm Brown to Ruby Ridge, L.A. riots
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Colin Mulvany photo

Special Agent Norm Brown is retiring after 25 years with the FBI. He said his last five years as “supervisory special agent” in charge of the terrorism task force have been among the most important in his career.
(Full-size photo)

FBI Special Agent Norm Brown traveled a long, exciting and sometimes dangerous series of assignments before returning to his hometown of Spokane, where he graduated from Ferris High School in 1975.

There weren’t many boring days along the way, he said.

Brown has been a point man for the agency, serving on the elite hostage rescue team in Quantico, Va.; on duty with the FBI director’s protection squad; as a SWAT team commander in Seattle; and as the first commander of the Inland Northwest Joint Terrorism Task Force.

He’ll retire Sunday after 25 years with the FBI, not regretting a day.

An FBI agency rule says supervisors can hold a post for only five years. If Brown wanted to keep working until the mandatory retirement age, he faced a transfer.

For the Spokane native, the choice was easy, albeit somewhat sad.

“I’m going to take a break,” he said. His wife, Bernadette Brown, who’s also an FBI agent, will continue to work for a time, but when she retires, the couple plan to travel and do volunteer work.

“I have no immediate employment plans,” said Norm Brown, who works out every day – weightlifting, bicycling or running. He wants to buy a digital camera, pursue photography and fly-fishing and spend time with his two brothers and his 85-year-old father, Richard Brown, the founder of Brown Building Materials.

U.S. Attorney Jim McDevitt, the region’s top federal law enforcement official, describes Brown “as the model of an FBI agent. He’s not a supervisor, but a leader. He treats people with respect.

“He’s selfless and puts his people first, and is willing to stick up for them, even at the risk of his own career,” McDevitt said. “He’s not a bureaucrat, and he’s not afraid to buck the bureaucracy when it’s necessary.”

Brown attended Washington State University, getting a degree in criminal justice in 1979, while working as a Spokane County sheriff’s cadet his senior year. He worked as a Spokane deputy from 1980 until late 1983, when he was hired as an FBI agent.

His last five years as “supervisory special agent” in charge of the terrorism task force have been among the most important in his career, Brown said.

In that post, he supervised a team of federal, state and local agents and officers who work out of an office at a semi-secret location, tracking extremism activity in Eastern Washington and North Idaho. The work involves analysis and intelligence gathering, confidential informants, monitoring and infiltration of suspected groups and coordination with 100 other terrorism task forces across the United States.

“The term ‘terrorist’ just doesn’t apply to Osama bin Laden or Mohammed Atta,” Brown said. “It can be used to describe groups of individuals that are involved in anarchy as well as white supremacists and militias.

“Our primary goal is to ensure that a terrorist attack does not occur in the Inland Northwest,” he said.

The task force has brought several high-profile cases, including that of a militia bomb-maker convicted in a plot to kill a judge and a university student who was deported after being acquitted of suspected ties to al-Qaida.

The task force also watched the remnants of the Aryan Nations unsuccessfully attempt to regroup after a devastating civil suit in 2000, followed by the death in 2004 of the group’s founder.

“We’ve noticed a significant downturn in white supremacy activities after Richard Butler died,” Brown said.

He got his chance to return to Spokane in 1997 from Seattle, where he’d been SWAT team commander in the FBI field office since 1991. He also worked bank robberies, drug cases and did surveillance work while in Seattle.

In 1996, Brown’s Seattle SWAT team was sent to Portland to watch for a team of “Phineas Priest” bank robbers and bombers. The group of North Idaho-based domestic terrorists had struck twice in Spokane, detonating two deadly bombs, and were planning another robbery in Oregon.

When the would-be robbers got to Portland, the FBI had closed the bank to avoid another bombing or gunfire, while Brown and his team conducted surveillance. Brown’s team later arrested the heavily armed trio without incident during a stop at a service station.

Brown also led the Seattle SWAT team to the streets of Los Angeles for 10 days to protect firefighters during rioting following the 1992 acquittal of police officers involved in the beating of Rodney King a year earlier.

“I remember standing on a street corner in L.A. with my riot gear on, with my submachine gun, and thinking, ‘This can’t be America – where people are taking pot shots at firemen who are just doing their duty.’ ”

In August 1992, Brown and his SWAT team spent 10 days living in tents in a mountain field in North Idaho during the deadly standoff known as Ruby Ridge. As SWAT team leader during various shifts, Brown was within 25 yards of the cabin at the center of the incident, but he never fired a shot.

He described the standoff as a “very unfortunate situation for law enforcement and the (Randy) Weaver family,” but leveled no criticism at anyone involved. Brown points out that the FBI changed the way it deals with hostage-standoff situations following the deadly siege.

Before being transferred to Seattle, Brown spent two years as a member of the special security detail assigned to then-FBI director William Sessions. The assignment came at a time when Colombian drug lords were putting out contracts on senior American officials.

“I traveled with the director to 25 states and eight foreign countries in less than two years,” Brown recalled.

That assignment came after Brown spent four years as a member of the FBI’s 50-member hostage rescue team, based in Quantico, another sought-after post. The selection process for the hostage team “was the most physically demanding two weeks of my life,” he said.

Brown remembers one team assignment in Montana where he and his camo-clad sniper partner had crawled within 75 yards of a remote cabin where two escaped murderers were holed up.

“Suddenly we heard a shot go directly over our heads,” he recalled. “It was close, too close. We look at each other in disbelief and remained motionless for 10 minutes.”

Later, they heard more gunshots about the time the cabin burst into flames. One of the escapees killed the other before starting the fire and committing suicide.

Brown’s first assignment after graduating from the FBI Academy was Butte, but the young agent was only there for two weeks before being transferred to Coeur d’Alene.

He arrived in North Idaho in 1984 about the time the FBI was opening a “major case” into a group of white supremacists known as the Order. The group, also known as “Bruder Schweigen,” was robbing banks and armored cars and printing counterfeit money to fund a “race war.”

In Coeur d’Alene, Brown teamed up with FBI senior agent Wayne Manis to track down various members of the Order. Manis, now retired from the FBI, recalled last week that Brown was “always soft-spoken and unexcitable” and brought those traits to the job. Manis nominated Brown to become a member of the hostage rescue team.

In the fall of 1984, Brown and another agent searched a rural home near Sandpoint where Order member Gary Yarbrough had stashed an arsenal of weapons, including the assault weapon used to kill Jewish radio talk show host Alan Berg in Denver.

He also was involved in the search of a home in Laclede, Idaho, used as a “safe house” by Order members. Another arsenal was found, but, more importantly, Brown, two other agents and three identification specialists turned up fingerprints identifying seven or eight members of the group.

“We even got fingerprints from the bottom of the toilet seat,” he said with a laugh.

Contact Bill Morlin at (509) 459-5444 or billm@spokesman.com.

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