How ProPublica and Frontline tracked down a violent white supremacist — with a government security clearance

July 5, 2018

The first thing A.C. Thompson wants you to know about this red-capped man captured in video beating demonstrators in Charlottesville and Berkeley: It wasn’t easy to find him.

“We have been trying to figure out who this person was since last fall, but we didn’t know his name,” the ProPublica staff writer and Frontline contributor told me.

Two months ago, through associations in the extremist movement, the reporters discovered the mystery thug was close with members of the Southern California-based white supremacy movement Rise Above Movement, which is under FBI criminal investigation. Thompson and colleague Ali Winston got a name and an employer (defense contractor Northrop Grumman). They also discovered he had been in a doctoral program at UCLA. They also found he had a government security clearance.

Their story Thursday led to calls on Northrop to fire Michael Miselis and on UCLA to kick him out. After an investigation, Northrop announced late Friday that Miselis would no longer be working at the company.

One recent morning, when Thompson met up with Miselis outside his home, the aerospace engineer denied any involvement, even that he was at Charlottesville.  

One other thing: “He looked utterly and completely unsurprised to see us. Unshocked.”

Thompson, who has covered hate groups on and off for years, says the story illustrates one fallacy liberals have about white supremacists and neo-Nazis. “I think there’s a stereotype that these people are all idiots. This totally underestimates this movement. These people are hateful but savvy.”

Photos of Miselis’ cohort at UCLA show a diverse array of folks, including many Asian Americans, Thompson says. “I would not imagine he’s very public about his beliefs, at work or at school.”

What’s next?

Of publicly funded UCLA, which told ProPublica and Frontline that Miselis wasn’t currently attending classes, Thompson expects more pressure from government officials to expel Miselis.

Thompson, who was at Charlottesville and one Berkeley riot, has been getting raked on social media about being taken in by “crisis actors,” ignoring violent anti-fascist groups or about identifying white supremacists.

His responses: a) Thompson was actually there at Charlottesville and one Berkeley riot, saw some of the altercations; b) ProPublica has extensively and unfavorably covered anti-fascist groups; c) And Thompson can’t understand how “practicing journalism and naming people who are participants in violent or hateful movement is an untoward practice. … It is the practice of journalism, the practice of reporting what should be revealed.”

The article will lead toward a Frontline documentary scheduled for air on Aug. 7. A previous collaboration revealed that a neo-Nazi active duty Marine participated in the Charlottesville violence. U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison wrote to U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis asking him to investigate "white supremacist activity in the military and explain what steps are taken to screen recruits for extremist ties.” The Neo-Nazi Marine was court-martialed.  

The investigation is part of ProPublica’s Documenting Hate project, working with more than 150 newsrooms and 17 college newspapers, says Rachel Glickhouse, a coordinating editor of the project.

“This is how we want to do reporting on the white power movement,” Thompson says of the Miselis story. “We want to cast the spotlight on the people who want to stay in the shadows, who are actually engaged in criminal activity.”

Editors' Note: This story was updated with Northrop Grumman announcing that Miselis had left the company.