A “sizable percentage” of FBI employees felt sympathy towards the Jan. 6 insurrectionists, and considered the riot at the U.S. Capitol “no different than the BLM protests,” according to a warning email sent to a top FBI official by someone with apparent connections to the bureau.
In the email, which is included in a trove of documents released by the bureau this week, the sender’s name is redacted. The documents indicate the message came from an email address outside the bureau, though the subject line is “Internal concerns.”
The email was sent to Paul Abbate, now the second highest official at the FBI, who responded an hour later, thanking the sender for the message.
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The Jan. 13, 2021, email contained a stark warning about attitudes toward the insurrection within the bureau:
“I literally had to explain to an agent from a ‘blue state’ office the difference between opportunists burning and looting during protests that stemmed legitimate grievance to police brutality vs. an insurgent mob whose purpose was to prevent the execution of democratic processes at the behest of a sitting president,” the email states. “One is a smattering of criminals, the other is an organized group of domestic terrorists.”
And it relayed concerns from agents within the bureau:
“I’ve spoken to multiple African American agents who have turned down asks to join SWAT because they do not trust that every member of their office’s SWAT team would protect them in an armed conflict.”
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Michael German, a former FBI special agent and a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program at New York University and an outspoken critic of the bureau, said the email didn’t surprise him.
“It didn’t tell me anything I didn’t expect already, but I think it’s important to substantiate the suspicions me and many other people had,” German said. “They clearly are on notice about a much more serious problem within the FBI.”
An FBI spokesperson declined to comment on the email.
While there may be some sympathy towards the Capitol rioters within the FBI, the bureau’s investigations have nonetheless contributed to Justice Department prosecutions of almost 900 people who were there that day. Scores of defendants have received jail time for their crimes. Dozens more have agreed to cooperate with the prosecutions.
But there has been pushback. Earlier this year, FBI special agent Stephen Friend was suspended for refusing to participate in prosecutions of Jan. 6 protesters. Friend’s stance was praised by Republican lawmakers, who called him “patriotic.”
The FBI email sheds more light on a problem that has been endemic in American law enforcement for decades, said Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, who has studied white supremacists since the 1980s.
“The situation has been serious enough that the FBI for almost 20 years, has been warning of insider threats from cops,” Beirich said. “And the thing is, nobody’s done anything about it.”
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A 2009 warning about extremists recruiting members of the military and police officers went largely ignored by the federal government, and resulted in the ostracizing of the author of the study, a senior Department of Homeland Security official.
Ten years later, a 2019 study by the Center for Investigative Reporting found that hundreds of active duty police officers were active inside racist, Islamophobic and anti-government groups on Facebook. Another study by the Plain View Project compiled hundreds of hateful and racist posts made on Facebook by police officers. Last year, USA TODAY found more than 200 people who claimed they worked for police departments in a leaked database of members of the Oath Keepers, an armed extremist group that is now the subject of one of the biggest prosecutions emerging from Jan. 6.
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And as USA TODAY reported last month, the FBI itself has also been heavily criticized for directing domestic extremism investigations overwhelmingly towards left-wing targets.
The FBI has a long and troubled history of focusing on groups on the left of the political spectrum while largely turning a blind eye to domestic extremists on the far-right, Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told USA TODAY.
“Both historically speaking and in current events, we’ve seen the amount of surveillance that has been marshaled specifically against groups fighting for racial justice increased exponentially than from what we’ve seen being monitored on the right,” said Guariglia, who holds a doctorate in the history of police surveillance.
Beirich said given the conservative nature of law enforcement, there is bound to be some “overlap” into far-right extremism within the ranks. The biggest problem is a lack of action taken by departments to root out extremists on the payroll, she said.
“Even right now, there aren’t policies in a whole lot of departments about what to do with these guys — there’s no screening mechanisms,” Beirich said. “There’s no effort to really deal with it.”
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