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It Seems a White Nationalist Managed to Pass the State Department's Background Check

An officer in the Bureau of Energy Resources allegedly went to Charlottesville and recruited for a white nationalist organization.

by Tess Owen
Aug 10 2019, 2:36pm

Matthew Q. Gebert allegedly attended the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, recruited for a white nationalist organization in Washington D.C., and hosted prominent racists at his home in Virginia.

All the while, he held a position as a foreign affairs officer at the Bureau of Energy Resources in the Department of State — a job that entails significant background checks to obtain a “top secret” security clearance. He would have had access to sensitive government intelligence.

Gebert’s identity and reported involvement in white nationalist activities — conducted under the pseudonym Coach Finstock — was brought to light this week through an investigation by Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch.

“He chose to risk this great career. Why would he throw it all away?”

The fact that Gebert, 38, was seemingly able to lead a double life for at least four years raises questions about the thoroughness of the State Department’s background check program.

Gebert graduated in 2011 from George Washington University, and according to an alumni bio unearthed by Hatewatch, he worked at the U.S. Energy Association and the Telecommunications Training Institute after graduating. In 2013, he landed a presidential management fellowship at the State Department, a highly-selective and prestigious program that primes government appointees for office.

Read more: How an allegedly violent white supremacist spent decades in the U.S. military undetected.

The fellowship is two years long. After that, in 2015, he got a job in the State Department’s Bureau of Energy Resources as a foreign officer. Around that time he became radicalized, according to Hatewatch.

One current State Department official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said he knew Gebert during his early years at the agency and frequently interacted with him. The official was shocked to learn about his alternative identity, and described Gebert as someone intelligent, with critical thinking skills — someone who they would’ve imagined landing a high-ranking job somewhere like the National Security Council later down the line.

“He knows better. He should know better, and yet he chose to risk this great career,” the official said. “Why would he throw it all away?”

In his current role, Gebert would have been making $105,000 at the very least, and was on a career path that would eventually allow him to travel around the world, meet important international figures, and stay at five star hotels on the U.S. government’s dime.

And yet, during an appearance on white nationalist podcast “Fatherland” in August 2017, the same month as the violent Charlottesville rally, Gebert reportedly made it clear he was willing to put his white nationalism before almost anything else.

“There are bigger things than a career and a paycheck, and I don’t want to lose mine,” Gebert, speaking as Coach Finstock, according to Hatewatch. “I am prepared to lose mine, because this is the most important thing to me in my life … in tandem with my family, of course.”

When Gebert accepted the presidential management fellowship, he would have been subject to an extensive background check, which would clear him for top-tier security clearances later down the line. As part of that process, he would have had to fill out the 136-page SF-86 form, which quizzes applicants about everything from family members, to foreign associations, to psychological health. One section asks about membership in organizations related to terrorism, or organizations that promote violence.

According to Hatewatch, by 2016, Gebert was running Helicopter Pilots, an organizing chapter of white nationalist Mike Peinovich’s organization “The Right Stuff.” Peinovich, who also goes by “Mike Enoch,” is known for his role organizing the violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville that left one dead and dozens injured, as well as his blog and podcast. Gebert and his wife regularly entertained Peinovich and other white nationalists at their home in Loudon, Virginia, Hatewatch reported.

Every employee’s security clearance is subject to revalidation every five years — that means the process for Gebert’s second round of checks and interviews would have started in 2018.

“The reality is, if someone answered ‘no’ to those questions ... the odds of the government finding out is pretty slim.”

Given that his alleged involvement in Helicopter Pilots and the white nationalist movement was largely contained to sharing racist, anti-Semitic memes across various social media accounts, recruitment, and hosting events at his home, its unlikely that his reported extremist activities would necessarily fall into the State Department’s SF-86 form definition of an organization “dedicated to the use of violence or force to overthrow the United States government.”

But even if Gebert had lied, so long as he was good at covering his tracks, there’s probably not a lot the government could do. “The reality is, if someone answered ‘no’ to those questions, unless they’ve been arrested or gave one of their references as another white nationalist, the odds of the government finding out is pretty slim,” said Mark Zaid, a national security law expert and founder of the James Madison Project, an advocacy group promoting government transparency.

Read more: The FBI needed child porn charges to arrest a man with "hunting guides" for Jews, Muslims, and refugees.

State Department investigators would have also interviewed a couple people from Gebert’s life, perhaps a family member, former employer, or friend, to make sure there weren’t any red flags in his background that may make him a liability.

But whether or not they find anything is almost entirely down to the luck of the draw, the state department official told VICE News. It depends who they talk to, for how long, and about what.

What’s more: the State Department is already drowning in a backlog of employee profiles that they haven’t cleared yet.

Gebert apparently worked hard to keep his two identities separate. But he took risks. According to Hatewatch, he attended Unite the Right, wearing a hat and sunglasses as a disguise.

“I came back in one piece. Un-doxxed. Knock on wood,” Gebert said on the Fatherland podcast. “Un-arrested. Just with some mild war wounds that frankly I’m kind of proud of.”

The State Department suspended Gebert on Thursday, according to Politico. One thing they will likely look at is whether his activities violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in outside political activity while on duty (which could include posting to his various social media alias accounts while on the job).

Penalties for violating the Hatch Act range from removal or suspension from federal service, to official reprimand, to a fine of up to $1,000.

The U.S. government is allowed to remove an employee’s security clearance without the possibility of getting sued. However, national security expert Zaid says they could run into trouble if they try to terminate his employment entirely on the grounds of white nationalism. “It gets dicey,” said Zaid. “There are first amendment issues involved.”

Cover: Washington, United States of America - February 06: United States Department of State, on February 06, 2019 in Washington, United States of America. (Photo by Felix Zahn/Photothek via Getty Images)