Privacy SOS

What’s the FBI doing in Ferguson this week? What about DHS?

Late last week, ABC News reported that the FBI "sent about 100 agents to the St. Louis area to help deal with any problems that could arise from the grand jury decision" regarding Darren Wilson's killing of black teenager Mike Brown. Those 100 agents are now in the Ferguson region, joining the St. Louis FBI office and its existing staff. According to ABC, on Friday the FBI opened a "special St. Louis intelligence center," where officials would be in "constant contact with the Missouri and St. Louis County Emergency Operations Center."

The FBI isn't alone among federal agencies that have marshaled untold resources in the Ferguson area in what appears to be a federally coordinated response to protests. Also last week, news stations in St. Louis reported that a local hotel employee was fired after posting an image to social media depicting tens of Department of Homeland Security SUVs parked in a garage. So DHS is also representing heavily in Ferguson this week.

The FBI declined to comment to ABC when approached about the Bureau's decision to flood the St. Louis area with agents. There's only one item in that news report about what those agents are doing this week in Ferguson: operating a local intelligence center to coordinate local, state, and federal authorities. Presumably, then, we can assume events occurring in the streets of Ferguson are under some level of federal control.

But we don't know much else about what those DHS and FBI officials are doing on the ground. The only other hint we have is disturbing.

Just days before the grand jury announced its decision not to indict Darren Wilson for any crimes related to his killing of the unarmed teen Brown, CBS News produced a scoop related to the FBI in Ferguson. On November 22, CBS tweeted: "A law enforcement source tells @CBSNews the men arrested in undercover operation near Ferguson intended to use the explosives in pipe bombs." It was a shocking little news bite, and quickly spread through the internet. The only problem was that there was no evidence for the claim.

The two New Black Panthers charged by federal authorities face allegations that they made false statements to the government. They are not charged with any pipe bomb scheme. If the FBI had evidence to show these men purchased pipe bombs, they would likely have faced terror charges. The FBI loves its terror prosecutions, so it's hard to square the anonymous official's claim about pipe bomb purchases with the lack of any related, formal charges against the men. But it appears formal terror charges weren't the point.

The propaganda damage to the Ferguson movement was effective. Almost immediately, news outlets around the country began running sensationalist headlines about protester violence. The press called the men "would-be bombers," taking at face value these FBI whispers that amounted to nothing in court. There was no meat to the pipe bomb story, but history shows that with friendly journalists eager for clicks, narratives don't need facts in order to take on a life of their own.

To recap: At least 100 FBI officials went to Ferguson, for reasons that remain obscure to the public. There are likely hundreds of other federal officials in town from agencies like DHS, too, if the image of that hotel garage full of DHS SUVs is any indication. The only thing we know for certain is that the FBI has set up an intelligence center to manage the government's response to protests, and that the FBI attempted to cast a negative light on Ferguson protesters by leaking (probably false) innuendo to the press about alleged terrorists hell-bent on public disorder.

In light of the grand jury's decision to pass on indicting Wilson, responsibility for holding him accountable now falls to the federal government. But it's hard to believe the FBI will do the right thing in its investigation in light of its historic hatred of civil rights activists and movements, and what we've seen thus far in Ferguson.

One thing remains clear, however: We don't know nearly enough about what the Feds are doing in the streets of Ferguson and St. Louis this week. Given the FBI's Orwellian surveillance infrastructure, its ugly history of attacking civil rights movements, and its recent campaigns setting people up in political 'terror' cases that border on entrapment, someone needs to find out.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.