An FBI document obtained by Yahoo News shows that the bureau is monitoring groups that protest the Trump administration immigration policies as “extremists.”
An FBI “external intelligence note” that was sent to law enforcement and government agencies by the bureau’s Phoenix field office in May warns that immigration activists are “increasingly arming themselves and using lethal force to further their goals,” although it offered no evidence of violence.
The memo alleges that “anarchist extremists” are “very likely” increasing the “targeting” of immigration enforcement officers and detention facilities and pose the “risk of armed conflict.” The memo acknowledges that the claims were made with “medium” and “low confidence.”
Even though nearly all evidence cited in the memo refers to nonviolent protests and statements, the document alleges that the “threat” to Arizona “likely will grow” and may be “emboldened” if given an “opportunity for an escalation to violence.”
The memo further claims that some of the groups it described as “anarchist extremists” have “banned firearms or [are] carrying loaded weapons.” No specific evidence that this had actually happened was cited.
“These indicators, if found to be accurate, could cause a change in the confidence levels or in the assessments in general,” the document says.
The evidence cited for the FBI's claims largely refers to activist websites and social media accounts calling for “disruptions” near ICE facilities.
The allegation that immigration activists are arming themselves appears to refer to comments from "antifa" groups about training members to use firearms. There have been no instances of shootings linked to antifa members. The document also cites a single human source to claim a group planned to provide “armed support of the migrant caravans” in December 2018. There has been no evidence that any group or any individuals actually did so.
Despite this general lack of hard evidence, the memo states that agents assessed that it was “likely” that immigration activists planned to use firearms against the government and right-wing groups, rather than arming themselves for self-defense, even though sources had told the FBI that these groups have “summarily banned the use of firearms.”
The memo was produced by the FBI Phoenix field office and distributed to other agencies. A bureau spokesperson told Yahoo News that the contents of the document offered only the perspective of the Phoenix field office and included nuanced qualifiers.
“These products are intended to be informative in nature,” the spokesperson said, “and as such, they contain appropriate caveats to describe the confidence in the sourcing of information and the likelihood of the assessment. Additionally, when written at a local level, these products will note that the perspective offered may be limited to the field office’s area of responsibility.”
Mike German, a former FBI special agent, told Yahoo News that the memo is evidence of the bureau’s post-9/11 “overreach” in classifying protest groups as terror threats.
“It’s been a feature of the post-9/11 counterterrorism effort by the FBI to focus on nonviolent civil disobedience and to prioritize it,” German said. “For several years after 9/11, the FBI called environmental activists the No. 1 domestic terror threat, even though there’s not a single homicide related to environmental ‘terrorists’ in the United States.”
A 2010 FBI inspector general report criticized the bureau for targeting groups like PETA and Greenpeace, noting that some investigations were “factually weak,” and showed no indication of federal criminal activity.
“In some cases, the FBI extended the duration of investigations involving advocacy groups or their members without adequate basis, and in a few instances the FBI improperly retained information about the groups in its files,” the report said. “The FBI also classified some investigations relating to nonviolent civil disobedience under its ‘Acts of Terrorism’ classification, which resulted in the watchlisting of subjects during the investigation.”
German told Yahoo News that even groups like antifa, which have been involved in violent street clashes with far-right groups, would not qualify as terror threats.
“Congress passed a definition of domestic terrorism. It requires illegal activities harmful to human life,” German said. “I’m not aware of any fatal attacks committed by somebody associated with an antifascist movement.”
Nate Snyder, a former Homeland Security and Justice Department official, told Yahoo News that the FBI also erred in linking antifa to anarchist groups and immigration activists.
“Those are three very different groups,” he said.
This federal scrutiny is apparently not limited to activist groups. An NBC San Diego investigation earlier this year found that government authorities are tracking journalists who have covered migrant caravans at the border.
Snyder called the memo a “head scratcher.” In July, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified to Congress that domestic terror cases are on the rise, but that most of them involve “white supremacist violence.”
Despite Wray's testimony, Yahoo News reported last month that the Justice Department had suppressed a report showing that white supremacists were responsible for all race-based domestic terror incidents last year. The Trump administration has also shifted resources and staff away from investigating white supremacist violence, while increasing DHS investigations that have targeted Muslims and other minority groups.
“There are people out there actually harming other people, and that’s where the counterterrorism resources should be devoted,” German told Yahoo News, “not toward people who are simply challenging government policy,”