Saturday, November 12, 2022

The FBI's Transformation, from National Police to Domestic Spy Agency. Part One: "Disruption" - by 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

Steve Friend

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.