The FBI has a long history of using confidential informants in legally and morally ambiguous ways

The Justice Department is refusing to answer questions about the possible role confidential informants played in the January 6th riots at the Capitol Building, prompting many conservatives to wonder if they helped incite the mob.  They have every reason to be suspicious after the FBI has used these techniques for decades against both left and the right wing groups.

Prominent conservatives have become convinced that the FBI used confidential informants to help instigate the January 6th riots at the Capital Building.  Republican Senator Ted Cruz questioned the executive director of the bureau’s national security branch, Jill Sanborn, under oath earlier this week about whether or not CI’s were involved, but she refused to answer any questions on the matter.  “How many FBI agents or confidential informants actively participated in the events of Jan. 6?” He asked.  At first, she deflected, saying she couldn’t discuss “the specifics of sources and methods” of the FBI.  The Senator rephrased the question, asking simply if any were involved at all, a basic yes or no question.  “Sir, I can’t answer that,” Ms. Sanborn replied.  Senator Cruz asked if any agents or confidential informants committed crimes of violence themselves on that day.  “Sir, I can’t answer that,” she insisted.  He asked again, did any agents or confidential informants “actively” encourage crimes of violence on January 6.  Once again, “Sir, I can’t answer that.”

Of course, the FBI cannot and should not reveal the names of these informants or what they were doing in the middle of ongoing investigations and trials, but the mere existence of them would not disclose any sensitive information.  There is no risk of revealing “sources and methods” simply by answering basic questions about the FBI and their use confidential informants, and these are certainly questions about things the public has a right to know. In the meantime, suspicious conservatives point to the strange case of Ray Epps, a man seen clearly on video on January 5 encouraging an attack on the Capitol, shouting “Tomorrow, we need to get into the Capitol! Into the Capitol!”  Even at the time, the crowd responded by shouting “Fed! Fed! Fed!”  Still, Mr. Epps continued in this manner for some 90 minutes, and the incident was repeated at least three times on both January 5th and 6th.  In fact, right before the breach of the Capitol, Mr. Epps was seen hollering,  “we are going to the Capitol. Where our problems are!” Shortly thereafter, he was whispering in the ear of one Ryan Samsel just moments before he charged the Capitol steps and was the first to break the police line.

Mr. Epps was placed on the FBI’s most wanted list for six months following the Capitol riots, but then he was mysteriously removed without any explanation.  Perhaps even more mysteriously, he has not been charged with any crime, or at least not yet.  In the meantime, the FBI seems unwilling to even acknowledge the man’s existence in the first place.  Senator Cruz also took the opportunity to ask Ms. Sanborn about Mr. Epps.  “Miss Sanborn, was Ray Epps a fed?” He inquired, only to receive the usual reply, “Sir, I cannot answer that question.”  Similarly, Senator Tom Cotton questioned National Security Division Assistant Attorney General Mathew Olsen.  “Mr. Olsen, who is Ray Epps, and why was he removed from the FBI’s most wanted list?” Mr. Olsen’s reply?  “Senator, I don’t have any information about that individual I would defer to Ms. Sanborn for any additional information.”

Since these exchanges, the January 6 Congressional Committee jumped in, tweeting that they spoke to Mr. Epps to confirm he wasn’t working for the FBI.  They claimed, “The Committee has interviewed Epps.  Epps informed us that he was not employed by, working with, or acting at the direction of any law enforcement agency on Jan 5th or 6th or at any other time, & that he has never been an informant for the FBI or any other law enforcement agency.”  Alas, they provided no additional information, no transcript, no list of questions, no actual investigation into the matter, not even confirming if he was under oath.  Nor did they even bother to explain how that could be possible given the clear video of Mr. Epps inciting a riot, his presence and then absence from the FBI’s most wanted list, and the lack of arrest or charges. Unfortunately, the January 6th Committee has already falsified evidence in public and exaggerated their claims, making it difficult to trust anything they say without additional evidence.

This didn’t prevent the usual suspects in the mainstream media from declaring this conspiracy theory has been debunked, but Mr. Epp’s isn’t the only strange case following the January 6th riots.  There are also significant questions around Enrique Tarrio, the leader of the Proud Boys.  He was involved in the group’s planning for January 6, but was suddenly arrested on January 4 and forced to leave Washington, DC.  Some are finding the timing rather suspicious, given that Mr. Tarrio has actually been an informant for the FBI in the past.  Last January, Reuters reported that “A Federal Bureau of Investigation agent and Tarrio’s own lawyer described his undercover work and said he had helped authorities prosecute more than a dozen people in various cases involving drugs, gambling and human smuggling,” The author, Aram Roston, actually noted, “The records uncovered by Reuters are startling because they show that a leader of a far-right group now under intense scrutiny by law enforcement was previously an active collaborator with criminal investigators.”

Of course, it remains possible there is a reasonable explanation for all this, but one would think the FBI would have a vested interest in sharing it, rather than denying and deflecting, refusing to answer even the most basic questions.  It would also help if the FBI didn’t have a long and sordid history of using confidential informants in unscrupulous ways and illegally abusing their power.  This is the same organization that launched the illegal COINTELPRO (abbreviated from Counter Intelligence Program) in 1956 specifically to surveil, infiltrate, discredit and disrupt domestic American political organizations.  Sound familiar?  At the time, their targets were largely on the left, groups that they considered “subversive” including the Communist Party in the United States, anti-Vietnam groups, civil rights activists, feminists, the black power movement, environmentalists, animal rights organizations, American Indian supporters, Puerto Rican independence groups, and on the right, the Ku Klux Klan and the National States Rights Party.  The civil rights icon and legend Martin Luther King, Jr. was a personal target.

The FBI executed this war against subversive groups using five key methods as described by attorney Brian Glick in War at Home.  One of these methods included infiltration of targeted groups by both agents and confidential informants and the goal was not simply to obtain information as most of us are familiar with from movies and television.  Instead, the agents and informants were actively involved in the groups, planning operations on their behalf and at least in one case actively arming them.  A Senate Select Committee, known as the Church Committee, that investigated the program in 1975 ultimately concluded, “Many of the techniques used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity, but COINTELPRO went far beyond that…the Bureau conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association, on the theory that preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propagation of dangerous ideas would protect the national security and deter violence.”

Further, the Committee noted how broad the program was, “nonviolent organizations and individuals were targeted because the Bureau believed they represented a ‘potential’ for violence—and nonviolent citizens who were against the war in Vietnam were targeted because they gave ‘aid and comfort’ to violent demonstrators by lending respectability to their cause.”  In addition to infiltration, the FBI used psychological warfare, harassment inside and outside the law, illegal force up to and including assassinations, and a public relations war.  Nor were actual facts and the commitment of real crimes ever the point.  FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover wrote this plainly in an internal memo, the “Purpose of counterintelligence action is to disrupt the Black Panther Party and it is immaterial whether facts exist to substantiate the charge.” As the Church Committee described it, “Groups and individuals have been assaulted, repressed, harassed and disrupted because of their political views, social beliefs and their lifestyles. Investigations have been based upon vague standards whose breadth made excessive collection inevitable. Unsavory, harmful and vicious tactics have been employed—including anonymous attempts to break up marriages, disrupt meetings, ostracize persons from their professions, and provoke target groups into rivalries that might result in deaths.”

COINTELPRO officially ended in April 1971, but the era of domestic espionage was not over, far from it.  It continued, practically unabated, though still mainly targeting leftwing groups until sometime shortly after 9-11 when the FBI began taking aim at what they call “homegrown violent extremists.”  These groups were seen as just as much a product of the right as the left.  An FBI report covering 2002 to 2005 noted, “The terrorism preventions for 2002 through 2005 present a more diverse threat picture. Eight of the 14 recorded terrorism preventions stemmed from right-wing extremism, and included disruptions to plotting by individuals involved with the militia, white supremacist, constitutionalist and tax protestor, and anti-abortion movements.”  At the time, it was unclear what measures were being taken in terms of “terrorism prevention,” but a recent high profile case provides a potentially disturbing picture.  In 2020, the FBI revealed they’d uncovered and disrupted a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer.  The initial revelation was met with much media fanfare as the FBI alleged, “This group used operational security measures, including communicating by encrypted messaging platforms. On two occasions, members of the alleged conspiracy conducted coordinated surveillance on the Governor’s vacation home…and discussed detonating explosive devices to divert police.” They confidently declared, “Whenever extremists move into the realm of actually planning violent acts, the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force stands ready to identify, disrupt, and dismantle their operations, preventing them from following through on those plans.”

Court proceedings from this past fall, however, reveal an almost entirely different picture, one right out of COINTELPRO:  The FBI wasn’t merely monitoring this group of extremists and gathering information about a potential plot.  Instead, their confidential informants were actively involved at every step of the way, both planning and providing training, even planting the initial idea to carry out an attack.  Before the FBI’s involvement, their target, the Wolverine Watchmen, was a tiny, insignificant online group of disgruntled right-wing individuals, venting their frustrations at the Governor’s restrictive pandemic policies and, in their view, hypocrisy.  All talk and no action, but then the FBI stepped in, flooding the nascent group with at least 12 agents and confidential informants.  Even the left-leaning site BuzzFeed News concluded, “Working in secret, they did more than just passively observe and report on the actions of the suspects. Instead, they had a hand in nearly every aspect of the alleged plot, starting with its inception. The extent of their involvement raises questions as to whether there would have even been a conspiracy without them.”  They determined that the FBI’s presence was pervasive:  Every person involved in the kidnapping “plot” had their own handler.  “Big Dan” was paid around $54,000 for his role as an informant, and the Whitmer case wasn’t the only one he was assigned to either.  He was also instructed by Special Agent Jayson Chambers to convince a man in Virginia to assassinate Governor Ralph Northam, texting “The mission is to kill the governor specifically.”  The support provided by “Big Dan” in both cases included instructions on how to build explosive devices.

Lest you think these are the exceptions rather than the rule, consider that the federal government spent $548 million last year on confidential informants across the FBI, the DEA, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.  The use of these informants is a big part of their “business model,” especially considering the FBI’s total budget is only about $10.5 billion.  The FBI also regularly authorizes these informants to commit crimes, some 4,734 in 2017 and 4,922 in 2018 alone.  In other words, the government is forking out half a billion a year to commit thousands of crimes with no accountability whatsoever, only denial and deflection.  What could go wrong?

My own personal take:  I hope it is just a conspiracy, but nothing would surprise me at this point.  This is the same FBI that has been instructed to investigate potentially rowdy parents at school board meetings and recently stormed a journalist’s apartment in a pre-dawn raid.  They’ve been getting away with twisting the legal system and skirting, if not actually violating, the law for decades.  To be completely transparent, Steward Rhodes, the head of the Oath Keepers was another ringleader conservatives identified as a potential confidential informant.  He was charged just yesterday with seditious conspiracy, though many observers believe that will be very difficult to prove in court.  There could be action forthcoming against the others, but if the FBI isn’t going to provide answers, we can only wait and see. In the meantime, we should all be skeptical.

2 thoughts on “The FBI has a long history of using confidential informants in legally and morally ambiguous ways”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s