On June 3, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department will revive a task force on domestic terrorism to curb that form of violence in the United States. Holder stated that the Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee will work to eliminate danger from violent individuals who may be motivated by anti-government or racist views. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Security Division of the Justice Department, and the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee will lead the efforts.
The committee was originally launched to focus on “right-wing extremism” in the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Now, the latest move in the U.S. government’s War on Terror comes as shootings in Las Vegas and New Brunswick, Canada, have reignited the debate around perceived domestic terror threats. While Holder believes “it is critical that we return our focus to potential extremists here at home,” a careful examination of the Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee – and specifically the FBI’s role in the effort – reveals that the greatest threat to the freedom and safety of individuals in the United States may be the federal government itself.
It was reported in December 2012 that the FBI coordinated a national campaign of surveillance on Occupy groups across the country. The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund obtained documents via Freedom of Information requests that showed efforts by the bureau, the Department of Homeland Security, local police and banking institutions to track all possible actions by Occupy Wall Street-affiliated groups. Buried within these documents were details of a 2011 plot to assassinate leaders of Occupy Houston.
After noticing a reference to the plot, MIT graduate student Ryan Shapiro requested more information related to the assassination plan. Shapiro sought records “relating or referring to Occupy Houston, any other Occupy Wall Street-related protests in Houston, Texas, and law enforcement responses.” The FBI claimed to only have identified 17 pages of records related to the request; however, they released just five pages, all heavily redacted.
The documents obtained by Shapiro state: “An identified [redacted] as of October planned to engage in sniper attacks against protestors [sic] in Houston, Texas, if deemed necessary…. [Redacted] planned to gather intelligence against the leaders of the protest groups and obtain photographs, then formulate a plan to kill the leadership via suppressed sniper rifles.”
Shapiro has since filed a lawsuit against the FBI in an effort to make the agency release all 17 pages. The FBI attempted to get the lawsuit dismissed by claiming that the bureau had “general investigative authority” and could not be forced to released the documents. But Judge Rosemary Collyer of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia didn’t blink; she gave the FBI until April 9 to provide a more detailed explanation for exempting the remaining documents. Yet as of this month, still no more information has been made public.
Meanwhile, Occupy Houston released a statement demanding more details and asking important questions. “The FBI not only had knowledge of these plots but actively refused to inform Occupy Houston activists of the details. These extremely suspicious acts lead us to question whether the plot(s) were a government sanctioned plot or that of an independent entity,” they wrote.
Holding the FBI Accountable for Entrapment
The FBI is not only guilty of withholding information, but, some argue, the agency is also guilty of entrapment and the outright creation of so-called terrorists.
One of the most well known cases of FBI entrapment involves the former Texas-based activist and current FBI informant as well as Brandon Darby, an editor at Breitbart Texas. Darby’s story has been covered extensively in articles and in two documentaries, Informant and Better This World, which detail his role helping the FBI arrest young activists David McKay and Bradley Crowder during the 2008 Republican National Convention in Minneapolis.
Darby was a prominent activist around the Austin community and helped in the early days of the Common Ground Collective’s relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Exact details as to when Darby became an informant for the FBI are murky, but we know that by early 2007 he had begun providing the bureau with details on possible acts of violence.
McKay and Crowder were both from the west Texas oil town of Midland and had no protest experience prior to the 2008 Republican National Convention. Upon meeting Darby at a planning meeting for the RNC, the pair said they were encouraged to do more than sit and talk – particularly as Darby told them he wanted to “shut the fucker down.” A plan developed to create makeshift shields for use during the protests. However, upon arrival in St. Paul, Minn., the group’s trailer was raided and the shields taken by police. Shortly after, McKay and Crowder decided to buy supplies to make molotov cocktails.
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But the next morning the pair decided against using the molotovs and left them behind, stored in a basement. Darby and McKay reportedly discussed throwing the firebombs in a police parking lot, but McKay decided against, texting Darby, “I’m just not feeling the vibe on the street,” and instead he went to bed. After Darby repeatedly texted the sleeping McKay, police raided his room and arrested him at 5 a.m., only hours before he was scheduled to fly home.
“The reality is, when we woke up the next day, neither one of us wanted to use them,” Crowder told Mother Jones. Crowder and McKay were both eventually convicted for making Molotov cocktails, and received two-year and four-year jail terms, respectively. (Both men have served their time and been released.) As word of their arrests began to spread, so did suspicion that Darby was an informant. Only a small group of people were aware of the molotovs plan, and Darby became a prime suspect. Two months later, Darby admitted his involvement with the feds. “The simple truth,” he wrote on Indymedia.org, “is that I have chosen to work with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
The news shook the Texas activist community and caused many to question the role Darby played influencing McKay’s and Crowder’s decision. Darby has since gone on to become a celebrated hero to some and a traitor to many more. His case, however, isn’t the first time the FBI has used an informant within activist groups to make arrests.
More recently was the case of the Cleveland 5. In October 2011, the FBI sent an unnamed informant, known as a confidential human source, or CHS, to infiltrate Occupy Cleveland in hopes of finding potential “terrorists.” The FBI sent in a career criminal convicted of at least six charges, including robbery, to investigate the Occupy group and “potential criminal activity and threats involving anarchists who would be attending.” The CHS found five men with anti-government sentiments and began encouraging them to consider various acts of terrorism.
Under the encouragement of the CHS the group plotted to blow up a bridge in Ohio on April 30, 2012. The CHS reportedly took the men from discussing knocking down bank signs to discussing buying C4 explosives, promising them fake license plates and alibis to soothe their fears of being arrested and sent to Guantanamo. The CHS repeatedly pressed the men to consider buying the explosives in the weeks leading up to the arrest. One of the 5, Connor Stevens, was actually recorded rejecting violent tactics, saying, “It’s actually harder to be non-violent than it is to do stuff like that.”
Eventually, though, the group was persuaded to buy explosives and upon attempting to make use of the dummy explosives, which had been provided by another FBI informant, they were arrested. The men received sentences ranging from six to 11 years.
How Did We Get Here?
In the early 20th century, President Theodore Roosevelt tasked Attorney General Charles Bonaparte with creating an investigative team that would report directly to the Attorney General’s office. In the Summer of 1908, Congress created the Bureau of Investigation as a new federal investigative force. Thirty-four men were hired to work under the agency’s first chief, Stanley Finch. After initially being named the Division of Investigation, it finally took on the name Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935. The most famous director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, ruled with an iron fist from 1924-1972.
Hoover is well known for his use of wiretapping – both for criminals and government officials. Under his guidance, the FBI carried out its program of intimidation, spying and threats to influential civil rights leaders and activists. From 1956 to 1971, the FBI’s Counter-Intelligence Program, COINTELPRO, monitored activists, senators, athletes and other influential Americans it deemed subversive or critical of the Vietnam War. The public found out about the program after the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, a group of activists who broke into an FBI office in rural Pennsylvania, leaked files to a number of newspapers in 1972.
For the first time, the public had documentation to expose the bureau’s dangerous and often illegal practices. According to the FBI’s own public database, records were kept not only on activists and politicians, but anyone of influence, including Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, John Denver, John Lennon, Jane Fonda, Groucho Marx, Charlie Chaplin, Sonny Bono, Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson, Mickey Mantle and Gene Autry.
Although COINTELPRO was officially ended in 1971 due to the public backlash against it, the general practices championed under Hoover’s FBI continue to be active today. While the majority of news media seem to focus on a perceived growing right-wing threat, it’s important to note that the agency has just as clear an agenda for those on left who oppose authoritarian policies by Big Government.
If the American people are serious about maintaining our constitutional freedoms, privacy and safety, the place to look for threats isn’t in the circles of peaceful activists or fabricated terrorists. Rather, it’s the FBI and the federal government that continue to stifle our rights to free speech and assembly – by getting in the way to obstruct and manipulate what is otherwise legal, nonviolent dissent.
In part II of this series, Recent Crimes of the FBI, we will look at who’s watching the watchers.