A self-styled FBI whistleblower effectively blew the whistle on himself and other FBI agents who like him are responsible for investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol, but are sympathetic to the suspects they are ordered to investigate and arrest.
As many as 14 FBI employees have chosen to challenge valid assignments or question domestic terrorism strategy by running to Trump-adoring Congress members.
Special agent Steve Friend of the FBI’s Daytona Beach satellite office, a 12-year bureau veteran and a SWAT team member, refused an assignment last month to help arrest a man suspected of a Jan. 6 offense and was considered absent without leave. Friend reported his suspension to Sens. Ron Johnson, R- Wis., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who included the details of his complaint in a letter that demanded answers from the FBI by Oct. 10.
If polarizing extremism in society has crept into the very agency charged with ferreting out violent threats to democracy, then the FBI must simultaneously police itself while it works to protect us.
We already know that at least 19 current or former law enforcement officers were charged in the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, including some for assaulting police officers. We also know that the names of hundreds of officers were among leaked lists of Oath Keepers members. Yet recent highly politicized proclamations that as many as 14 FBI employees have chosen to challenge valid assignments or question domestic terrorism strategy by running to Trump-adoring Congress members offers a public sign that the bureau isn’t immune from society’s polarization.
In late August, Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a memo to all Justice Department employees, including those at the FBI, reminding them that are legitimate processes in place to report concerns — but back channel communications with law makers isn’t one of them. It’s a sad sign of our times that the institutions responsible for identifying those among us who reject the rule of law must also determine whether such people walk the halls of those same institutions. The FBI has been scrutinizing its workforce and suspending or terminating employees who violate policies. While Rep. Jim Jordan R-Ohio, may call this a “purge,” it’s actually preservation of the FBI’s mission to protect against all threats — internal or external.
A Sept. 21 opinion column in the New York Post describes Friend as “an FBI hero” who was suspended because he objected to an “overzealous” investigation of the assault on the U.S. Capitol. But there’s nothing heroic about what this agent has done; in fact, what he’s done is dangerously disturbing — and a media outlet painting these actions as valiant speaks to the threat we all face as a society.
In the complaint attached to the senators' letter, Friend said he told a supervisor that he thought it “inappropriate to use an FBI SWAT team to arrest a subject for misdemeanor offenses and opined that the subject would likely face extended detainment and biased jury pools in Washington, D.C.”
Days later, he said, he met with two higher-level supervisors and when they asked if he believed “any J6 rioters committed crimes,” he responded that he believed some were innocent and “had been unjustly prosecuted, convicted and sentenced.”
Deeply flawed assertions, and the politically tinged way they’ve been raised, unfortunately cast a shadow on any more substantive claims made by the agents.
In their letter, Grassley and Johnson say that it’s important that the Justice Department and the FBI do things by the book but that “based on allegations, the Department and FBI have come up short and instead of listening to its employees to shore up its process and procedure, the Department and FBI have chosen to retaliate against them.”
But it doesn’t appear the senators have done their due diligence.
Using the details provided by Friend, NBC News reporter Ryan J. Reilly concluded that Friend could have only been objecting to sending in a SWAT team to arrest Tyler Bensch. Photos taken at the U.S. Capitol that Jan. 6 show Bensch dressed in full tactical gear, including a helmet, goggles and a gas mask, spraying someone in the face with a what appears to be a chemical irritant. Bensch was also wearing a GoPro camera. As Reilly points out, it’s clear why the FBI would want to physically obtain “a copy of the critical GoPro footage rather than issuing a summons and giving him and an opportunity to delete the incriminating evidence.”
It’s also clear that arresting a militia member who wears full tactical gear and sprays chemicals at adversaries might be best accomplished with a SWAT team standing by. Anything less than a well-planned arrest of such a suspect would endanger the arresting agents.
Friend claimed that other agents feel the same way he does about what he calls unjust treatment of Jan. 6 suspects. Indeed, Agent Kyle Seraphin recently told the Washington Times that FBI counterterrorism investigations of far-right extremists and white supremacists are “mostly entrapment,” and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a staunch ally of former President Donald Trump and a loud critic of the FBI’s investigation of Trump and the Jan. 6 insurrection, claims to have heard from more than a dozen agents he describes as whistleblowers.
The people who claim they’re concerned about the FBI becoming political sure have taken a partisan path to raise those concerns. Throughout every FBI field office, from employee break rooms to the agency’s internal intranet, there are well-posted options to reporting misconduct, ethical or integrity concerns.
Running to politicians such as Jordan or even Grassley or Johnson as they seek re-election feels much more like an attempt to avoid accountability than to protect society from harm.
There’s also no semblance of respect for process when agents run to the media for headlines when they’re facing discipline for breaking the rules. The FBI responded to Seraphin’s claim with a brief statement: “This comment is inaccurate and represents a clear misunderstanding of the policy and practice in FBI investigations.” The Washington Times says Seraphin, who has been suspended by the FBI, said his run-ins with his supervisors “began with his refusal to get a Covid-19 vaccination.”
Deeply flawed assertions, and the politically tinged way they’ve been raised, unfortunately cast a shadow on any more substantive claims made by the agents. For example, Friend and Seraphin assert that the high number of cases opened on those who participated in the singular event of Jan. 6 is giving Americans a false impression that domestic terror is on the rise. That’s a claim worth looking into, but it’s less likely to get attention when agents choose to make their own misleading and headline-grabbing accusations.
There’s something even more disturbing about this small group of FBI agents who refuse to respect the rule of law and decide which parts of long-established criminal justice processes they will or won’t follow in that they’re exhibiting the same radicalized mindset of Jan. 6 defendants they’re supposed to be investigating and arresting. Law enforcement agents who mirror that behavior aren’t “heroes” or patriots — they’re dangerous dupes who’ve lost their compass, and, I believe, ought to lose their jobs.