“I do not consider what occurred on January 6th to be an acceptable outcome,” said Director Christopher Wray. “We are working very hard to find better sources, better information, and better analysis.”
However, the FBI had more information about the party than Wray disclosed.
A Reuters investigation discovered that Bureau agents retained contacts with core Proud Boys representatives as early as 2019. According to Reuters, at least four Proud Boys have sent information to the FBI. These leaders also shared information about Antifa, a loose network of left-wing activists criticised by former President Donald Trump and right-wing media.
The Proud Boys’ links to the FBI may not imply that the agency has deeply infiltrated the far-right community. However, some law enforcement veterans believe the connections suggest the department should have done better to brace for the violent Jan. 6 revolt, which aimed to overthrow Democrat Joe Biden’s election as president.
“This was a group committing violence in public and promoting themselves as a violent group,” said Mike German, a former FBI agent who investigated domestic terrorism. German previously has criticized the bureau over what he says was a failure to focus on the Proud Boys ahead of Jan. 6. Told of the findings of this story, German said: “It’s hard to understand how the FBI could have had a relationship with four individuals in the Proud Boys and didn’t understand the nature of the threat to the Capitol.”
The FBI declined to answer written questions for this story or to comment on the four Proud Boy connections detailed here. An FBI official said Wray’s Senate testimony reinforced “the need to detect and deter acts of violence.”
Reuters interviewed two Proud Boys members who spoke on the condition of anonymity about some members’ interactions with the FBI. Reuters also interviewed Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio, examined court records and interviewed sources close to the federal investigation.
The reporting showed:
– According to Tarrio and two other Proud Boy outlets, one Proud Boy left the party in December after telling other members he was cooperating with the FBI by providing details about Antifa. According to these sources, the former participant, who Reuters was unable to name, stressed to community leaders that he had not leaked details about the Proud Boys.
– According to private conversations leaked on social media, a second Proud Boy chief boasted in 2019 of sharing Antifa intelligence with the FBI. A source familiar with the Proud Boys and the Jan. 6 event verified the validity of the chats.
– A third Proud Boy leader, Joseph Biggs, who was indicted and charged with conspiracy in the January attack, has said in court papers he reported information to the FBI about Antifa for months. Reuters spoke to Biggs two days before the riot. In that interview, he said he had specific plans for Jan. 6, but declined to disclose them. But, he volunteered to Reuters in that call, he was willing to tell his FBI contact of his plans for the coming rally, if asked. Reuters wasn’t able to determine whether such a contact took place.
– The fourth Proud Boy, Tarrio, previously had worked as a cooperating witness, sometimes undercover, for the FBI and local authorities in South Florida two years before the far-right group was formed, as Reuters reported in January. Tarrio told Reuters he continued intermittently to talk to the FBI, though he insists he never spoke about the inner workings of the Proud Boys. Instead, he said, he provided information about Antifa and about marching plans. Tarrio also spoke to the FBI in October, he said, when the Proud Boys were briefly accused of threatening Democratic voters via email. The Department of Homeland Security later alleged that Iran had “spoofed” Proud Boys email addresses, in a strange effort to disrupt the election. Iran denied it.
Tarrio, who was detained two days before the Capitol insurgency on arson and gun charges, did not participate in the Capitol insurgency. He claims that the party had no intention of resorting to violence that day. “We were actually looking forwards to having a fucking relaxing day watching the president speak,” he said of Trump.
Nonetheless, at least 18 Proud Boys have been arrested following the Capitol protests, on charges ranging from treason to attacking police officers. At least six other people connected to or accompanying the party have also been charged. In all, over 400 people have been indicted as part of the larger criminal investigation.
When Jan. 6 arrived, federal and local agencies were unprepared for the assault, in which rioters attempted to block US lawmakers’ formal certification of Biden’s election and keep Trump in office. The Capitol Police were unable to hold back the onslaught, law enforcement barricades were easily overrun, and five people died.
‘MINISTRY OF SELF DEFENSE’
The Proud Boys have earned a reputation as right-wing protestors and street fighters who have clashed with leftists at rallies in Portland, New York, Washington and elsewhere. Founded in 2016, the avowedly male chauvinist organization challenges what it perceives as excessive political correctness. Its members have often embraced their reputation for violence.
Members of the Proud Boys, including Tarrio, have stated that they have informed the FBI of protest paths, for example, while organising rallies. They claim that such leaks are not intended to warn or cooperate, but rather to serve as a public safety policy.
On December 12, 2020, a month before the insurgency, Trump supporters welcomed Proud Boys, many of whom were dressed in military vests and body armour over their trademark yellow and black jerseys, with rousing cheers at a rally in Washington to protest the Republican’s loss to Biden.
Violence spiraled out of control. Clutches of Proud Boys prowled the streets, attacking people they claimed were aligned with Antifa. Four people were stabbed. Two of those reportedly injured were Proud Boys, by someone they clashed with on the street. Tarrio would later be accused by authorities of burning a “Black Lives Matter” banner; video showed Proud Boys squirting it with lighter fluid to make the flames grow bright in the dark.
From that chaos grew the seeds of the Proud Boys planning for Jan. 6.
After the violence of Dec. 12, the presidents of the 155 Proud Boy chapters held a vote to ban the organization from officially sponsoring such rallies. “We voted against any more rallies until further notice,” one Proud Boy leader said. The vote meant that Proud Boys could not wear their “colors” – yellow and black paraphernalia adorned with various insignia, including roosters and laurel wreaths.
The point was to rein in the bad publicity stemming from the rampant violence, and to prevent Proud Boys from getting injured.
The vote had not previously been registered. That was a significant choice, representatives said, because it was the reason the Proud Boys went to Washington on Jan. 6 in the first place: without their Proud Boy gear. The lack of colours meant that the Proud Boys would be difficult to identify by the media and law enforcement; but, as long as they were not dressed in formal attire, they could still turn out for Trump despite the prohibition.
Tarrio and other leaders set up a virtual “rally chapter” called the Ministry of Self Defense, or MOSD, on a chat on the Telegram messaging site to plan for January 6, according to two Proud Boy sources. According to the reports, the channel will be used as a preparation method for January 6.
By the end of December, prosecutors now say, Tarrio and Biggs were publicly announcing their instructions to Proud Boys to go to Washington, DC, “incognito,” as they called it. Tarrio promised they would turn out “in record numbers.”
Before the presidential certification, in late December, a Proud Boy with the handle “Danny Mac” came forward to the group with a confession.
“He said he was an informant,” one Proud Boy said. “He said he was giving them information for two years.”
Danny Mac disclosed to the Proud Boys leadership the FBI had paid him for information about Antifa, two members told Reuters. But soon, he told the leaders, the FBI was demanding information about the Proud Boys group itself. Danny Mac said he was coming clean to the Proud Boys, and promised that he had not disclosed any secrets.
Nevertheless, according to a Dec. 19 message on Proud Boys chat rooms that was read by a member to Reuters, Danny Mac was “excommunicated” from the group. His access was deleted from any chats.
In an interview, Tarrio was cautious in discussing the former member. “He communicated with me that he was in touch with law enforcement,” Tarrio said, without elaborating. Tarrio said the member was rooted out over his “leadership style,” not his cooperation, but offered no further detail.
Reuters was unable to contact the former member known as Danny Mac.
The group deleted the Ministry of Self Defense chats after Tarrio was arrested Jan. 4 for his actions in the December rally. Tarrio faced a misdemeanor warrant for burning the Black Lives Matter flag and a felony charge for bringing two high capacity rifle magazines with him. He has not entered a plea and was released from custody after one night in jail. He is scheduled to appear in court in June.
Prosecutors claim that after his detention, a new private chat community was created. It was dubbed “New MOSD.”
According to Proud Boys, the FBI’s involvement in tapping into the far-right party tended to stem from members’ disagreements with and experience of Antifa – the loose coalition of radical leftists fighting racist movements. “Antifa is a scumbag!” Members of Proud Boy chant at marches. Some people are wearing “Death to Antifa” t-shirts.
In January 2019, a member of the Philadelphia chapter of the Proud Boys who called himself “Aaron PB” was on a Telegram chat with fellow members to gather information about Antifa, according to leaked chat screenshots whose authenticity was confirmed by a source familiar with the Proud Boys. Aaron PB said in a chat that he was gathering “info we want to send our FBI contact.”
PROUD BOY CHARGED
Biggs, a Proud Boy member with war experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, has pleaded not guilty to federal allegations of attempting to impede presidential election qualification. A judge has recommended that he be imprisoned until his hearing.
On January 6, Biggs was one of the most visible figures of the Capitol rioters. He was dressed in black military gloves with strengthened knuckle safety and a distinctive black, grey, and white flannel top with a two-way radio attached to the upper right pocket on that particular day. He led the Proud Boys column as it marched across the Capitol Building.
In a court filing last month, Biggs’ lawyer argued that his client should not be jailed before trial. The lawyer wrote that the Proud Boy leader has, for years, cooperated with the FBI and developed ties with at least one agent. That cooperation started, the lawyer wrote, when Biggs would call or meet with the FBI and local authorities to explain Proud Boys march routes and plans.
Reuters reached out to Biggs’ attorney, John Daniel Hull IV, who refused to comment.
Biggs’ interaction with the FBI was ratcheted up in July 2020, according to the advocate, when the Proud Boy chief met with two special agents for two hours. Biggs “spoke frequently” on the phone with a Daytona Beach agent, according to the prosecutor. According to the filing, FBI investigators asked Biggs to tell them what he learned about Antifa.
Reuters spoke with Biggs on the phone two days before the Capitol insurgency. He refused to reveal what the party had intended for the expected demonstration on January 6.
“If I tell you right now, it will give away my play,” he said in the Jan. 4 interview. But, he said, he was willing to tell his plans to a special agent in the FBI whom he knew, if he were asked. “If the guy that I know called me and had any questions, I would respond.”