Posted by Curt on 11 November, 2022 at 9:36 am. 1 comment.


via Matt Taibbi

A Florida FBI agent blows the whistle on a Bureau that’s stopped worrying about making cases, shifting resources to a vast new mission: domestic spying without predicate. Part one of a series
Late on an October morning in a quiet neighborhood near Daytona Beach, Florida. FBI agent Steve Friend sits in his kitchen, fidgeting. He’s a wiry, energetic man, built like a marathoner, not muscled up but exuding fitness, not a sitter. This is not a person meant for desk work, much less staying home all day. But as a whistleblower whose name has been all over media after a complaint about statistical manipulation and other problems in the January 6th investigations, this will be his lot for a while.
By that morning, the first rush of news stories about Friend’s case already passed. CNN and MSNBC demonized him, Fox hailed him as a hero, but the furor was beginning to die down. What a whistleblower talks about in this inevitable moment will say a lot about his or her motivation. Looking out a window into the stillness of his suburban neighborhood, Friend shook his head.
“I love my job,” he said, sighing. “I was living my best life as an FBI agent. I was coming home every day, and my kids were my biggest fan club. Like, ‘Daddy, did you put the bad guy in jail?’ And I thought, ‘Man, this is it.’”
It’s not the tone of a disgruntled malcontent, but someone who made a reluctant journey to whistleblower status, beginning with a whirlwind series of events that brought him and his family out of the Midwest to north Florida less than two years ago. He worked a child pornography detail before being transferred to the assignment that would upend his life: investigating J6. The FBI not only took Friend off vital work chasing child predators to pursue questionable investigations of people maybe connected with the Capitol riots (often in some misdemeanor fashion), they used dubious bureaucratic methods he felt put him in an impossible spot.
Essentially, the FBI made Friend a supervisory agent in cases actually being run by the Washington field office, a trick replicated across the country that made domestic terrorism numbers appear to balloon overnight. Instead of one investigation run out of Washington, the Bureau now had hundreds of “terrorism” cases “opening” in every field office in the country. As a way to manipulate statistics, it was ingenious, but Friend could see it was also trouble.
As a member of a dying breed of agent raised to focus on making cases and securing convictions, Friend knew putting him nominally in charge of a case he wasn’t really running was a gift to any good defense attorney, should a J6 case ever get to trial.
“They’re gonna see my name as being the case agent, yet not a single document has my name as doing any work,” Friend says. “Now a defense lawyer can say, ‘Hey, the case agent for this case didn’t perform any work.’ Labeling the case this way would be a big hit to our prosecution.”
Friend ended up refusing the arrangement, which led to his suspension. He followed procedure, making protected disclosures to superiors and the FBI’s Office of Special Counsel (OSG). He then reported his suspension to Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson and whistleblower-whisperer Chuck Grassley of Iowa. They sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, detailing Friend’s procedural objections, including that “agents are being required to perform investigative actions” they “would not otherwise pursue,” at the direction of the Washington Field Office (WFO).
When Friend first complained to his Assistant Special Agents in Charge (ASACs — the FBI is an acronym hell worse than the military), he told them, with regard to J6 suspects: “I’m not a Trump voter. I’m not sympathetic to those people.” The message didn’t get through, however, and leaks from the Bureau have almost universally painted him as an insubordinate MAGA conspiracist.
In fact, most of the press Friend attracted reduced his story to a referendum on the Capitol riots, as if his only complaint was being asked to investigate J6 at all. Big guns were brought out to sell the idea. Former FBI assistant director for counterintelligence-turned-talking-head Frank Figliuzzi blasted Friend on MSNBC as a “self-styled FBI whistleblower” (Figliuzzi, a lawyer, should know better: Friend made protected disclosures by the book and is legally a whistleblower), implying he simply didn’t follow “valid” orders, instead “running to Trump-loving Congressmen” to complain.
But Friend’s complaint is only partially about J6. His concerns began in his first days in Quantico, and continued across years of watching the Bureau collect intelligence or open cases for non-operational reasons. Whether they involve J6 or not, a consistent theme of his stories is the FBI using its authority to “disrupt” or intimidate targets as an end in itself, as opposed to collecting evidence with the aim of prosecuting.
One example involved a British doctor who’d been at J6. The suspect was not exactly Pablo Escobar. He did enter the Capitol, but surveillance showed he meekly stayed behind velvet ropes once inside, and under questioning was practically shaking with guilt over having taken a free Capitol tourist brochure as a souvenir. Though he seemed unlikely to be charged, he was booted from his medical practice after being interviewed, and Friend wondered if this even indirectly had been the point.
“I worried about the process being the punishment,” Friend says. “He lost his job. What does he get from us, if we don’t charge him? ‘Hey, you’re clear? The FBI found no wrongdoing, go pick up the pieces’?”
In the incident that led to Friend’s suspension, the FBI wanted to execute a SWAT raid on a subject who’d been communicating with the Bureau through an attorney and almost certainly would have come in voluntarily. Or, Friend thought, he could have been picked up in another, less dangerous way. The FBI however wanted a show.
“We’re gonna hit this house at six o’clock in the morning and throw flash-bangs and knock the door down and drive a Bearcat up on the front lawn,” recalls Friend, who had extensive SWAT experience and even worked the raid of Michigan militia members suspected of plotting to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer.
He recounts a detail straight out of the movie Idiocracy: the armored Bearcat vehicles the FBI uses in SWAT raids are fitted with special battering-ram-type devices agents call dongers. (No joke. Washington Field Office agents even nickname their Bearcat accessory “DOJ,” for Dong of Justice). Friend describes the lunacy of a federal posse riding into the suburbs to take a door in one of these phallic tanks. “You’re driving down the road with this long extension pole on the front,” he says, laughing. “And I’m thinking, ‘These things were built by the lowest possible bidder.’”
He didn’t laugh so much, however, when he started to get the sense the FBI was opening cases, knocking on doors, and using tactics like SWAT for reasons other than operational necessity.
“I was a little kid and a smart kid in school and I got bullied, bad. That’s one of the reasons I went to law enforcement, and joined the FBI.” He pauses. “My attitude toward the FBI was, ‘You guys are the NFL of police work. You’re supposed to be fighting bullies. I think we might be becoming the bullies here.”
Though he’s been denounced by pundits and Figliuzzi types as an insurrectionist “sympathizer” with nothing legitimate to say, Friend’s complaints in fact track with those of a number of FBI whistleblowers who came before him. Since 9/11, many complain the FBI is hurtling back in time, toward its darkest days under J. Edgar Hoover, when it was a vast, unchecked domestic political spying operation, swinging under a fig leaf of legitimizing law enforcement activity.
The Hoover-era FBI plunged into such infamous excess via snooping programs like COINTELPRO — from trying to blackmail Martin Luther King, Jr. into suicide to opening intelligence files on as many as 500,000 Americans, including a list of 26,000 “to be rounded up in the event of a national emergency” — that Congress in 1975 was forced to intervene. Led by Idaho Senator Frank Church, a Senate oversight committee uncovered deep rot, finding the FBI secretly went “beyond its law” to “disrupt, discredit and harass groups and individuals.”
The Church hearings led to reforms that checked the Bureau’s worst instincts, for a time. Now the beast is back. The FBI not only is deep into the domestic spying game again, it’s accrued broad new powers, including authority to collect intelligence on Americans virtually without limit.
“I would like to think the point of all the intelligence analysis is to create products that are going to help crack a case,” Friend says. “But they’re not. In some cases, there’s no crime. We’re just intelligence, intelligence, intelligence.”
What does an FBI that stresses intelligence, intelligence, intelligence for its own sake look like, in day-to-day practice? No matter your politics, you’ll probably be shocked.
Mike German, also an FBI agent until 2004, tells a story illustrating a Bureau problem.
“I worked undercover in neo-Nazi and militia groups,” German says. “There were a lot of people who were ideologues. They would put an arm around me and say, ‘You seem like a smart kid. Why are you hanging around with those idiots?’” He laughs. “They’d say, ‘You don’t have any tattoos. We can put a suit on you. We can run you for the school board. That’s how we’re gonna challenge the system.’”
German pauses. “That distinction, between people who believe bad thoughts and people who do bad things was completely lost on our counterterrorism enterprise after 9/11,” he says. “In fact, they adopted a fraudulent radicalization theory that’s been disproven over and over again, that bad ideas lead to bad acts.”
German is also a whistleblower, forced out after reporting a problem involving an illegal wiretap. FBI higher-ups not only didn’t listen, but tried, absurdly, to cover up the incident by using Wite-Out to change the date on a key document. They took him off undercover work and threw picayune counter-accusations at him, none of which stuck but led to his departure. “Whistleblowers who reasonably believe they’ve witnessed abuse or mismanagement,” he says, “should be able to report those episodes without retaliation.”
German, who later went to work for the ACLU, has been following the news about FBI whistleblowers like Friend and Kyle Seraphin, who’ve been prominently featured in conservative media. “I’m sure if I sat down with them, I’d have sharp disagreements,” he says. “But I’m glad they’re pointing to real problems.”
German has spent nearly two decades tracing the FBI’s transformation. In his excellent 2019 book Disrupt, Discredit, and Divide, he describes how the FBI for most of its early history essentially had free rein to become a thought-policing operation. “Under Hoover, there were no guidelines,” German says. “There was no centralized list of authorities that described and circumscribed FBI powers.”
The Church revelations led to then-Attorney General Edward Levi establishing a set of operating guidelines for the FBI in 1976 that required agents to connect investigations to a criminal predicate, or “specific and articulable facts giving reason to believe that an individual or group is or may be engaged in activities which involve the use of force or violence.”
The Bureau of course never stopped political snooping, but its emphasis shifted some until 9/11, after which it was denounced for a failure to act on multiple specific warnings. The government responded to this appropriate criticism with a bigger error. Assuming the problem was a lack of authority, Attorney General John Ashcroft issued new guidelines that re-introduced the idea of investigating without predication. On October 25, 2001, Ashcroft candidly explained his bureaucratic rationale. Should something bad happen again, he essentially said, the FBI will be blamed. So, gloves would come off.
“Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department, it is said, would arrest mobsters for “spitting on the sidewalk,” he wrote. “If you overstay your visa—even by one day—we will arrest you… We will use every available statute.”
“They sometimes call this the Al Capone strategy,” German explains. “If Al Capone is the head gangster, but we can’t get anybody to testify against him, we can at least charge him with income tax evasion.”
Ashcroft and others insisted the FBI had been held back by post-Church rules restricting its ability to collect information, but evidence suggested the exact opposite. In one of America’s most famous whistleblower cases, the Chief Counsel of the Minneapolis Field Office, Coleen Rowley — who would eventually make the cover of Time magazine as one of three “Persons of the Year” — wrote a letter to Mueller in May of 2002 explaining that the FBI had key advance information about al-Qaeda member Zacarias Moussaoui, arrested weeks before 9/11 in Minneapolis. The office even got a call from a local flight school with concerns about Moussaoui, leading agent Harry Samit and supervisor Mike Maltbie to ask Washington for permission to seek a warrant.
Washington analysts, however, didn’t think field agents had enough for either a criminal or a FISA warrant and rejected the request, in one of the biggest intelligence failures in history. As Rowley explained, a major reason wasn’t that the FBI had too little intelligence, but too much.
“Increased vigilance must be encouraged when needed,” she wrote, “but the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces can easily get bogged down in attempting to pursue all the leads engendered by panicky citizens. This, in turn, draws resources away from more important, well predicated and already established investigations.”
Rowley at the time was describing how the FBI was hampered even before 9/11. Today, she recalls how the Minneapolis office was paralyzed after the attacks.
“They put everybody chasing all these millions of leads that were coming in,” she remembers. “It was crazy stuff. Someone would call in and say, ‘I saw someone in a robe.’ We had leads that every single person who had gone to a certain website to look at the Quran was supposed to be investigated.” Rowley notes that management in her field office had enough sense to avoid getting bogged down, but other offices were overwhelmed.
An irony for Rowley was that in her early days in the Bureau, she’d been warned about this exact problem by old-timers from the days of Hoover and COINTELPRO, some of whom got into hot water thanks to the Church revelations. “New agent, 27 years old,” she says. “Once in a while I’d be alone with one of them in a car or something. And they’d say, ‘Just a piece of advice, young kid. Don’t get carried away.’”
Yet Rowley saw the Bureau get carried away repeatedly. Regarding the complaints of agents like Friend about the J6 investigations, she sees their stories as the latest in a line of “overkill” episodes, from obsession with communists in the Hoover days (“Chasing Pete Seeger and Burl Ives,” she says, laughing) to fixations on the mob she saw as a young agent, to 9/11. The higher you go in the organization, the more likely FBI officials are to be driven to chase the political bugbear of the moment, while field agents have to be at least somewhat grounded in evidence and reality.
“If we got crazy tips, we’d throw ‘em in the trash because we were in a field office, and everybody in our field office had common sense,” she says. “But in DC they can’t. When you’re in that belly of the beast, where the pressures and the perverse incentives exist, you’re far less likely to maintain your common sense.” She pauses. “Analysts, they get their points and kudos by producing this stuff. If it’s the flavor of the day, it gets rubber-stamped and sent out to the field. The groupthink is huge.”
Toward the end of the Bush years, an extraordinary moment passed with little notice. In December of 2008, the FBI formalized a new “baseline collection plan” that, together with radical new Attorney General guidelines pushed by Bush’s last AG Mike Mukasey, vastly enhanced the Bureau’s powers. Not only could the Bureau now initiate investigations called “assessments” based on no little to no predicate, but the “collection plan” urged agents to focus on data sweeps for their own sake.
Agents were pressed to fill in a long list of data fields when conducting assessments. Does the subject have a commercial driver’s license? Does he or she make enough money to transfer funds for “terrorism or criminal purposes,” and if so, where does the money come from? With what other adults does the subject live? Who are the subject’s close associates, and what’s their deal? (Specifically, “Does the U.S. Intelligence Community have any relevant information regarding the subject’s close associates?”). Has the subject “been known to make statements that would be generally consistent with a desire to commit terrorist acts”? And so on.
Toward the end of the “collection plan,” agents are asked: “Does the FBI have a strategy to disrupt any plans to commit acts of violence or other criminal conduct associated with the subject and the terrorist organization?”
Understanding the concept of disruption is central to grasping the direction of the new FBI. To this day — this is part of Friend’s story as well — FBI agents get credit for an internal metric called “disruptions,” which could mean anything from an arrest to interviewing a subject to let them know the FBI is onto them.
On one hand, as in the famed Al Capone/tax evasion example, the strategy makes sense. On the other hand, giving the Bureau a free hand to make judgments about which individuals should be extralegally “disrupted” invites all sorts of mischievous possibilities, especially if the Bureau’s DC management is in one of its “overkill” modes, and hyper-focusing on Italians or Muslims or Burl-Ives-socialists or, yes, conservatives even.
Friend, who joined the FBI just as controversies over the Bureau’s 9/11 failures were dying down, was about to get a firsthand look at the new bureaucracy.
Just before he left the famed Quantico academy in the summer of 2014, Friend was treated to an ominous parting message from Bureau instructors.
“The night before we finished our training, we all had to go to a mandatory meeting,” Friend recalls. “We were all upset because our families were arriving and we all wanted to go meet them at the airport. And they said no, everybody had to go.” Friend remembers four Bureau’s intelligence analysts up on stage. He laughingly recollects that another person, a supervising analyst from headquarters, was moving through the crowd “like Rikki Lake,” taking questions.
“They said, ‘This is your opportunity to ask these analysts questions, to learn what their role is in the organization,” he recalls. The impatient audience was not exactly a font of questions. It was a weird vibe. “We all had to sit there for two hours as they pontificated about how important they are,” Friend remembers.
A former cop from the Savannah and Pooler police departments in Georgia, Friend was old-school law enforcement and grew frustrated. It seemed to him the analysts were trying, as a going-away present, to put field agents in their place, and he didn’t understand why.
“I raised my hand and asked, ‘Hey, did some crusty old agent ask an analyst to get a cup of coffee once, and we’re making amends?” he said. “Is that what’s going on?’”
Awkward silence descended. One of the analysts said no, that’s not what happened. Moreover, he said, you’re really going to value analysts wherever your destination is. Friend doubted it. He knew he was being posted to Sioux City, Iowa, where he’d mostly work on Native American reservations, what the FBI calls “Indian country.”
“Well,” he said, “I’m headed to Indian country. There’s not much of a terrorist threat there. So I doubt I’ll be working much with analysts.”
“You’ll be surprised,” they told him.
Fast forward a few years. Friend was indeed posted to Sioux City, where he did as close to pure police work as an FBI assignment gets, handling “domestic violence, sexual assaults, aggravated assaults, drugs, death investigations,” and other cases alongside tribal police. He was nothing if not busy. “25 cases was considered fully assigned,” he says. “I typically had 30 to 40 cases at a time.”
Despite the remoteness of his posting, a portion of Friend’s job was answering questions for Washington analysts, dealing with so-called RFCs, or “Requests for Collection,” which often involved asking agents to put questions to confidential sources. As far as Friend was concerned, it was a one-way relationship. “They weren’t important for me to do my job,” he recalls. “I was important to them, to produce their intelligence product.”
In one episode, they wanted him to question a Native American woman about pipeline attacks, because the Bureau was concerned about the Dakota Access protests. The only problem was, Friend’s source was a member of the wrong tribe, lived in the wrong state, and had no history with environmental activism.
“I said, ‘There’s not a pipeline that goes to the reservation here,’” he recalls. “They said, “Yeah, but she’s a Native American and there’s this Standing Rock protest.”
He pushed back, gently suggesting that the analysts consider that the question was offensive, that even he was offended on her behalf, etc. No go. “They were basically like, ‘She’s an Indian, she’ll know. They’re probably hearing it in the spirit world,’” he says now. “It was one of the most racist things I’d ever heard. I thought, ‘Are they really going to force me to make this gross generalization?”
The answer was yes, not because the analysts had it in for Friend or his informant especially, but because new policies stressed a dragnet approach to all intelligence matters. A DC analyst has a question? Let’s pose it to every source in the country, whether it makes sense or not, even if it might harm the CI relationship. You’ll get a lot of useless information and even more wasted time for field agents, but it was a win-win for analysts, who got lots of new data for what one agent calls “the term papers.”

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