UPDATE #3 – Counter-Terrorism By Creating Terrorists

Early Morning [Explored]
(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.

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18 Responses to UPDATE #3 – Counter-Terrorism By Creating Terrorists

  1. pjshield says:

    I think it’s very interesting that the FBI would go out of their way to find someone guilty that probably would have done no harm. I think there are hundreds of people out there that complain about the government but the FBI has done nothing to find them. This group must have done something more than just complain to get the FBI’s attention and I’m sure it was more than just posting online. There has got to be more to this story than what was reported on NPR and other sources. I think it could change some opinions to listen to both sides of the story.

    • Hi PJ. Thanks for commenting.

      If you can find more information on this case, please share. I’m very interested in seeing what exactly drew the FBI to Thompson.

      As far as I know, the online comments that got the FBI’s attention were made on the message board of a Georgia militia group. Federal agencies actively monitor and at times infiltrate chat rooms and discussion boards of all sorts of “fringe” groups, whether they be Islamist, right-wing, or environmental in character. The potential chilling effects on free speech aside, considering that terrorists are recruited from and congregate in these corners of the “deep web,” it makes sense for law-enforcement to monitor such places. (http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/07/12/us_backs_off_propaganda_ban_spreads_government_made_news_to_americans http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-06-23/u-s-surveillance-is-not-aimed-at-terrorists.html)

      The question I have is, what content is threatening enough for law-enforcement to send an undercover informant to infiltrate these groups in meatworld, so to speak? Do people who say “I would like to Shoot Nancy Pelosi” get their own informant? What about speculating about tactics criminals might use to cause death and mayhem? What’s the line here? If you’ve been on the internet for any amount of time, you know that people shoot their mouths off and make threats they have no intention of carrying out.

      The bigger issue, as I see it, is these codgers didn’t do anything illegal until they were prodded and encouraged to by the informant. They were then arrested on charges of plotting to blow up buildings and spread ricin. Obviously prosecutors pile on charges to scare defendants, but the judge decided not to throw the book at Thompson and the others and instead, convicted them on the weapon and explosive charges.

      As far as motive for picking on relatively harmless guys griping on the internet and in diners, it might simply be so the FBI can say they’ve foiled a terrorist plot.

  2. nicksalute says:

    I really enjoyed this post, and how consistently informative you were throughout it. I find this topic very interesting and i have seen it occur many times; it is almost as if the federal government is instigating non-criminals to become criminals. Situations such as this one are bound to create controversy. Although the general idea of infiltrating potential criminals seems justified, we must ensure that the “criminals” that we are engaging in are truly a threat to national security. In the situation that you presented, it certainly does not seem rational that elderly men would follow through with an act of terror. But to the contrary, it would be unwise to disregard a potential threat and face a possible backfire on our nation. It is a tricky dilemma, but I tend to agree with the “better safe than sorry motto.”

    • Hi Nick.
      You’ve nailed the problem the government faces here. Arresting people after an attack has been carried out won’t work. So the government has adopted this policy of “preempting” terrorism by baiting potential terrorists, monitoring them, and arresting them at a certain point. The NPR story describes a case somewhat similar to this one in which the FBI gave this guy a fake detonator and arrested him after he attempted to detonate what he thought was a bomb. So while in that case the FBI also approached a guy complaining on the Internet and offered to supply him with resources to turn his gripes into action, they showed he was willing to go all the way and kill people. I don’t think the FBI came anywhere as close to demonstrating such malice and intent in the Fred Thomas case.

  3. tylermastin93 says:

    This was a very interesting post. I find it so disgusting that the US Agents would use a convicted man with six counts of sexual misconduct involving his stepdaughters, to bring down a “terrorist organization.” A good point that is mad in the post, its Sims (the informant) not Thomas who is suggesting to take things to the next level and even offers to help pay for the explosives. Even though Sims is the informant, wouldn’t he get into some trouble for further escalating an attempt that would not have really happened? I find it hard to believe a “Elks Lodge” of men one of which is a 73 year old man (Thomas) dying of emphysema, could have executed this dangerous attempt.

    • Hi Tyler,
      While I don’t think the age of the men involved is irrelevant to the case, it might be a red herring. As mentioned in the NPR story, an 88 year old man killed a security guard and wounded two others in front of the Holocaust Museum in D.C. during this same time. Moreover, some of Thomas’s rhetoric sounded like he saw himself as something of a martyr on account of his age and disease. People who have nothing to lose can be the most dangerous of all.

  4. Hello,
    I found it very interesting that the FBI would finally go above and behond their duties. I found that it is hard to get the attention from the department at times for such a small thing that may have not caused any harm at the time but what could be. When I see stories like this, that means that there can be many other cases out there that are similar but gets no attention from the FBI or government, or it is just kept from us for our self being and feeling safe to live in this country. We are a very powerful country and safe but there is always a threat in all areas and states. Very good story!!!

  5. seancity971 says:

    I would have to disagree with your opinion that Thomas and his group were not a very serious threat. To me, if a group of men decide to take the time out of their lives to think and plan a terrorist act, then they are knowingly taking the risk of being stopped by our federal government. My family is a family that has had every generation serve our countries military and I will be a little biased against those who plot against our government. however, i am glad that these men were arrested as the way they went about trying to have their problem solved was unreasonable, illegal, and irresponsible.

    • Harmon Gale says:

      Hello Sean, thanks for commenting!

      Thinking about and discussing things–even unpopular and potentially dangerous things–aren’t illegal as far as I know. Plotting to kill people is, however. The question is would these guys have got to the planning and plotting stage without the government’s help?

      • eifiguer says:

        Hello Harmon,
        This is a great post thanks for sharing. Although I do think that Sims actively aided the creation of the idea and the plotting part I believe it could have very well happened without him, therefore I completely agree with Sean. Also I don’t know any extra details to the case but it seems to me that Sims was there for a reason. Why else would the government “waste time” with this group of individuals if they didn’t raise any red flags? They must have seemed like a possible threat for the government to infiltrate the group.

      • Harmon Gale says:

        Hey! Thanks for commenting.
        Ah, well here is where I think “power and politics” played a role, to quote from the prompt for this assignment. Maybe the federal agents and the informant Sims all believed they were stopping a dangerous group of people and did their very best within the confines of the law to stop a dangerous plot. Or maybe Sims spun a story that convinced the DHS agent who visited him in prison that he knew about a terrifying domestic terrorist plot. Federal agencies end up spending a lot of money getting an undercover operation up and running only to discover half way through that Thomas and his friends, while make all sorts of inflammatory statements to each other and on the Internet, actually haven’t done anything illegal and aren’t likely to any time soon. If you’re the federal agent in charge of this operation, do you just shut everything town and tell your bosses that despite all the time and money you spent there’s nothing to show for it? Or do you push your informant, after all it’s his fault for getting you into this, to get these guys to do something illegal so you can bring a case to the federal prosecutor?

        I am not saying the latter scenario I painted is what actually happened or even close to what actually took place, but we should disabuse ourselves of the notion that men and women in law-enforcement are above such motivations.

  6. zoneofsubduction says:

    I’ll begin with a quote from the article that I find of interest: “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.”

    The Assistant US Attorney [AUSA] that prosecuted this case and in cases similar to this find it much more simple and politically expedient to criminally charge illegal possession/attempt to possess of an unregistered/untaxed ‘firearm sound suppressor’ [26 U.S.C. 5845 and 18 U.S.C. 844] and unlicensed explosives than to try these types of cases as criminal conspiracies or invoke the ‘Patriot Act’. Rather than attempt to try a criminal conspiracy case that had questionable ‘jury appeal’ that ostensibly involved an elderly man with a terminal disease, veteran/s with honorable service records, no suspects with prior criminal convictions and whom were well established in their respective communities; the AUSA went for simple and with extensive legal precedent in the possession of unregistered devices and explosives.

    When the potential ‘reasonable person/juror’ looks at the government’s case, they find the sole primary witness is a convicted sex offender involving children [a ‘child molester’ or ‘chomo’ in prison vernacular]. The child molester is at the bottom rung of both the upstanding and the criminal societies, actively shunned by normal society and considered expendable and often actively targeted by criminal society. Were the AUSA to present this witness into a courtroom with the average juror in the jury pool, the prosecution would have a demonstrably difficult time trying to overcome the jurors collective sense of revulsion to the prosecution’s primary witness, even with audio/video recordings of the interactions in which charges could be reasonably foreseen. In a case that involved only inflammatory statements and violent proclamations, there is little to show the jury that would arise their collective indignation for the criminal indictments presented as much as the prosecution’s witness would once it was introduced by the defense attorney.

    The AUSA was fortunate to get a five year sentence in the Bureau of Prisons [BOP], considering that the average defendant convicted of manslaughter/homicide gets about seven years in prison [nationwide]. In these types of cases, both sides can claim a victory, yet justice goes unsated.

    • Harmon Gale says:

      Great post ZoS! The sentencing just reinforces the point that Thomas and company never actually did anything illegal except for what law-enforcement encouraged and helped them to do.

  7. zoneofsubduction says:

    Keep in mind that when a Federal agent [criminal investigator] gets wind of anything that has the potential for criminal charges, they consult with and coordinate their case[s] with the US Attorney’s Office for their district from the initiation of the case. An AUSA is assigned to work with the agent[s] and legally develop the case for prosecution and legal review.

    If cases turn out to be unprosecutable or not of a criminal nature, the AUSA and the Federal agent are supposed to terminate the investigation, unless there is a compelling interest in continuing it [looking for actual suspect/s, conspirators, or intelligence on a definite crime].

    This is in contrast to State of Arizona law enforcement who usually only consult with the County Attorney [CA] on officer involved shootings, homicides, and complex fraud/computer crimes/terrorism type cases. The police do their work and then present it to the CA for review by the Supervisory Deputy County Attorney [SDCA] in the Major Felony bureau for charging or their recommendations/review.

    • Harmon Gale says:

      That’s an important distinction to make, thanks ZoS. Theoretically, a sharp lawyer is supposed to step in and tell federal agents to cut their losses if need be. But is that how things always work in practice? I think the RetroReport video I posted in the update is instructional here. Sometimes the prosecutor wants a win too, and as in the case of the “Detroit Sleeper Cell,” withheld evidence from the defense–with the approval of his supervisor at the U.S Attorneys Office! Three levels of oversight failed here.

      • zoneofsubduction says:

        The inherent problem with the Executive Office of the US Attorney {EOUSA] and the local US Attorneys are that they are inherently political entities. Each is chosen by the incoming President and serves solely at the pleasure of his/her political masters. Some US Attorneys are objective minded legal practitioners, others are little more than overly ambitious political hacks with Juris Doctorate degrees. Managing and supervising AUSAs also hold political sway over civil and criminal prosecutions.

        The oversight is not working because of fundamental societal changes in the body politic of the America.

  8. Riley Workman says:

    Harmon I think this was a great topic choice. It is pretty sad that the FBI actually thinks that forced convictions are a proper allocation of funds. There is a reason why the saying is ‘snitches get stiches.’ Rats like that cannot be trusted by people on either side of the law so of course they will do what ever they need to in order to benefit their pathetic lives. Especially sex offenders like this guy. One thing that really surprised me is how low of a prison sentence they got. I build guns for a living so I end up dealing with all sorts of people. Many people want more than they are allowed to have and even with the gun leniency in Arizona the charge would have been more than double that. Something else that is entertaining with this situation is their age. I thought it was kind of a well known consensus that old people are grumpy and gather together so they can be grumpy together. I am sure there are thousands of elderly veterans around the country that could just as easily be dooped into an arrest like this. Obviously someone was just looking to fill a quota with no regards for the casualties.

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