(Photo by David Hoffman via Flickr)
In November 2011, the FBI arrested four men who they claimed plotted to kill Internal Revenue Service and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents as well as federal judges with ricin or by blowing up a federal building. The men all in their 60s and 70s, routinely met at the local Waffle House and Shoney’s. The man who apparently led the group, Frederick Thomas, was 73 and dying of emphysema. The FBI had become aware of Thomas’s group after Thomas started posting on online message boards in 2008 calling for violent action to be taken against a tyrannical federal government.
[I first heard this story on an episode of NPR’s Radiolab program (audio, 20 minutes). Unless otherwise linked, I will be drawing my facts from there, these two articles from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the local paper did some of the best in-depth coverage of the case, as well as this article from Esquire magazine.]
The government sent an informant named Joe Sims to infiltrate Thomas’s group. Sims was released from jail in 2010 on bail after his arrest on an indictment for six counts of sexual misconduct involving his stepdaughters. The government claims it did not help Sims make bail, nevertheless, Sims immediately went to a federal agent he had met in jail with information about Thomas, and as of June 2012 at least, no court date was set. Sims remains free.
The group met in Thomas’s home or local diners to complain about the federal government. Sometimes the discussion was quite disturbing; making lists of politicians they wanted eliminated and Thomas said he “could shoot IRS and ATF all day.” However, audio recordings made by Sims, the informant, indicate it was he who pushed the group into taking things beyond rhetoric. Up until this point, Thomas was a Navy veteran, a husband, and a father living a crime-free life. He did not sell all of his possessions and sequester himself in the woods. He was still living in the home he and his wife bought when they retired. Tom Junod who wrote the Esquire piece suggested to NPR that “if the sheriff had just gone up to his house and said ‘we know what you’re doing, we know what you’re up to. Get lost. If I hear about this again, you’ll be in trouble.’ To me, it would have been over.”
In a recording, after learning how much explosives would cost, Thomas is heard saying that he would be unable to afford them. At that point Sims offers to help pay for them. Later, Thomas and another group member, Dan Roberts were arrested in a parking lot attempting to buy explosives and a silencer for an assault rifle from an undercover FBI agent. They were both convicted in 2012 for attempting to obtain unregistered explosives and an illegal silencer and sentenced to five years in prison.
In recent years, the government has taken more and more to finding people complaining about the U.S. government online who say they or someone else should do an ominous “something” about it, then connecting them with undercover informants, many of whom are avoiding criminal charges with their cooperation, who claim they can get weapons and explosives, then declaring they have foiled a terrorist plot .
Many defendants in these cases claim entrapment, however federal courts have set a rather high standard for demonstrating it. According to David Shipler writing in the New York Times, defendants must “show no predisposition to commit the crime, even when induced by government agents.” I think it’s quite telling that these men were convicted for the weapon and explosive charges and not terrorism under the USA PATRIOT Act. I have a hard time seeing how Thomas’s group would have moved beyond a bunch of old guys griping about the government at a Waffle House without the FBI or Sims.
UPDATE (Feb. 7, 2014).
Several of you have asked why the government would go through the trouble of conducting this operation if Thomas and company weren’t really dangerous to begin with. The New York Time‘s project RetroReport recently did a great piece on the “Detroit Sleeper Cell” the FBI arrested in September 2001. It’s a sobering look into what happens to justice when the government needs a conviction and a victory.
UPDATE #2 (Feb. 8 2014)
Were these guys dangerous enough by themselves or did Sims the informant push the group in a certain direction? Or a subtle combination of the two? Whether or not you think justice was served in this case hinges on this question. The relationship between an informant, law-enforcement, and the individuals under investigation is a complex one. There’s an interesting documentary available for streaming on Netflix called Better This World about two teenagers who traveled to Minneapolis to protest the 2008 Republican National Convention with an FBI informant and were arrested on terrorism charges after making Molotov cocktails.
Here’s a trailer:
UPDATE #3 (Apr. 1 2014)
The FBI continues to use undercover operatives to entrap people who sit around talking about politics and hit them with terrorism charges.
Tom Burke was driving through a sleepy part of Grand Rapids, Michigan—an empty neighborhood full of abandoned warehouses—when he first noticed the vehicle tailing him. “I was like, Why is this car turning left whenever I turn left?” he recalled. “I figured out I was being followed.”
Tom, a 49-year-old who has been active in antiwar and labor circles for decades, had been monitored for months by the FBI, and that morning, September 24, 2010, the Bureau was moving against him and his fellow activists. Agents had raided the homes of some of Tom’s friends, seizing computers and tearing apart rooms as part of an investigation into whether they were planning an armed revolution and providing aid to terrorist organizations. In response, Tom was on his way to an internet café to issue a press release telling the world what was happening, which was about all he could do given the circumstances.
That same morning, he and his wife were served with subpoenas demanding they testify before a grand jury. By December, 23 activists across the Midwest were subpoenaed and asked to answer for their activism. Among other things, they were accused of providing “material support” for terrorism, a charge that can mean anything from providing guns to a terrorist group to providing any sort of “advice or assistance” to members of such a group, even if that advice is “lay down your arms.” (Former president Jimmy Carter warned a few months before the raids that the threat of a “material support” charge “inhibits the work of human-rights and conflict-resolution groups.”)
Nearly four years later no one has been charged with a crime, and an unsealed affidavit, which the FBI used to get a federal judge to sign off on the 2010 raids, even notes that this group of mostly middle-aged peace activists explicitly rejected the idea of providing arms to anyone. The document, released by court order last month in response to requests from the activists, shows that an undercover special agent was intent on luring people into saying ominous things about “revolution” and, sometimes, some of these people indulged her, which provided the pretext for legally harassing a group known to oppose US policy at home and abroad. […]
Read more from yesterday’s article from Vice: “The FBI’s Failed Two-Year Campaign Against a Group of Non-Violent Activists in the Midwest.” The bit about how the U.S. government uses grand juries, in which those who testify aren’t allowed to bring a lawyer and can’t plead the Fifth, to harass non-violent activists is particularly troubling.
Whatevs. As Senator Lindsey Graham told us, “free speech is a great idea, but we’re in a war.“