FBI Questioned a Michigan Senate Staffer After Zoom Call About Banning Tear Gas

Two officers with an FBI task force showed up at the home of a Michigan state senator’s chief of staff and aggressively questioned her about a draft bill…

Two officers with an FBI task force showed up at the home of a Michigan state senator’s chief of staff and aggressively questioned her about a draft bill she had discussed on a private legislative Zoom call. The bill would limit the use of tear gas by police against protesters.

The incident happened in Southfield, a suburb north of Detroit, on October 29, days before the presidential election and less than a month after the FBI had foiled a terror plot by far-right violent extremists to kidnap Michigan’s Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and seize control of the Capitol building. The men, an FBI special agent and a local police officer assigned to the task force, knocked on the door of Katie Reiter, chief of staff to state Sen. Rosemary Bayer, a Democrat. They told her that they had received a “report” about an online conversation she had participated in from her home 10 days earlier, in which she had discussed “the use of tear gas during the election,” Reiter told The Intercept. They then pressed her to answer questions about the bill’s substance and timing even after she had told them what her job was and repeatedly warned that the content of the draft legislation was confidential.

“He was very unpleasant,” Reiter said of the special agent, who stood close to her without wearing a mask and combatively asked questions while refusing to answer hers. “I said, ‘Well, you know who I work for, right? And what I do for a living?’” she recalled. “Because I figured they would have Googled before they came to my house. He said, ‘No, we have no idea who you are.’”

Reiter had discussed the proposed ban on tear gas on a private 90-minute Zoom call with Bayer and a handful of other staffers on October 19, part of a package of proposed legislation drafted in response to the George Floyd protests last summer. She believes she might have discussed the election as well, possibly strategizing about whether to introduce the draft bill before or after the November vote. But the conversation was a routine work call — and the FBI’s visit and insistent questioning raised alarming questions about how and why the legislative discussion warranted police scrutiny.

While Reiter says the two officers refused to answer any questions about how they became aware of her private meeting, she noted that an appliance repairman was in a nearby room at the time of the call and might have overheard the conversation and alerted the authorities. “I don’t think it can be ruled out,” she said.

A spokesperson for the FBI declined to comment on the record, as did a spokesperson for Zoom. Regardless of how the FBI came to know of the call, civil rights advocates argued it was highly inappropriate for the agents to interrogate an elected official’s aide about legislative matters.

Mike German, a former FBI special agent and fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s liberty and national security program, noted that there are severe restrictions on the FBI’s political activities, including any investigative effort that might impact an election or legislation. “Certainly if there was any intention to intimidate staffers in their deliberations about legislation, that would be highly problematic,” he told The Intercept. “And the police officers or task force officers should have recognized that as soon as the witness said that she was a staffer discussing legislation.”

German also noted that the incident was indicative of a long-standing problem with the FBI’s war on terror-era policy to investigate every tip it receives, no matter how implausible or far-fetched — an effort that he says wastes resources while putting civil liberties at risk and hindering the FBI’s ability to pursue the most credible threats.

“For our safety, we put fire alarms in every building, but we also make it against the law to pull them if there isn’t a fire, because we recognize that responding to false alarms dulls the response time,” he said. “And yet the security apparatus we’ve created post-9/11 creates a massive amount of false alarms.”

View of the FBI building in Detroit.

Photo: Google Maps

False Alarms

Reiter had been in bed when she was woken up by loud pounding on her door and voices yelling “Police!” at around 8 a.m. She threw on a bathrobe and answered the door, where two plainclothes officers first identified themselves as police and then as FBI. Reiter did not recognize their badges, so she went inside to get dressed and called her sister, who lives nearby, her husband, father, and local police, whom she asked to come over. “I didn’t really know if these were FBI agents or not,” she told The Intercept. “I was afraid to open my door.”

When Southfield police arrived at the home and confirmed the agents were indeed with the FBI, Reiter asked them to stay. (She later obtained a police report, shared with The Intercept, confirming that police remained on the scene, at a distance, for the duration of the FBI’s visit. The agents claimed they had been at Reiter’s home a day earlier but found no one there, which she says is unlikely as her husband was working from home that day.) Over the next 10 minutes, they then grilled Reitman, skeptically pressing her about her Zoom conversation and pushing back against her answers as if they didn’t believe her. When she told them about the proposed legislation, they insisted on knowing what it would say, whether it would be formally introduced, and when. When she repeated that this information was confidential business of the state legislature, the agent who had been conducting most of the questioning told her it would have to go in his report, she said.

“Once I said who I was and who I worked for, and moreover, what the meeting was about, the interrogation should have ended,” Reiter told The Intercept. “If they didn’t believe me about the tear gas legislation, they could have easily asked to talk with the senator rather than continue to question me. … It certainly didn’t take that much time for me to tell them who I was and what the Zoom meeting was about. The rest of the questioning was focused on the legislation. To this day, I don’t know why.”

Before the officers left, and at Reiter’s insistence, one of them gave her his business card. The other officer, who said he had no card with him, scribbled his name in the back. The men were Jeff Whipple, a police officer with the Birmingham Police Department and member of the FBI’s financial crimes task force for metro Detroit, and FBI Special Agent Dave Jacobs. The FBI runs dozens of task forces across the country, in which agents from the bureau partner with a host of local and state police agencies to tackle a variety of law enforcement issues, from financial crimes to terrorism. It’s unclear why an investigation into remarks about the use of tear gas would have fallen under the aegis of this particular task force, which typically pursues fraud and other financial crimes.

The presence of local police on FBI task forces, particularly joint terrorism task forces or JTTFs, has long been a controversial issue. Some cities have pulled their officers from these partnerships because the civil rights protections the FBI is required to observe are more lenient compared to those of local police departments. And there have been problematic instances of FBI task forces inappropriately intervening in local political matters. In 2012, for instance, members of a Nevada JTTF aggressively interrogated Native American residents and others who had spoken at a public town hall in opposition to bear hunting, German said.

In the Michigan case, it was notable that local police officers on an FBI task force would seek to investigate legislation that would restrict their own departments’ ability to use tear gas against protesters. “I would imagine that with any sort of legislative effort to restrict the use of tear gas by police officers, local police would have an interest in that legislation,” said German. “It certainly raises questions.”

Reached by phone, Whipple declined to comment, while Jacobs did not return a request for comment. A spokesperson for the Birmingham Police Department, Whipple’s employer, wrote in an email to The Intercept that the officer is assigned full time to the task force and referred questions to the FBI. “The incident you are referring to is a federal matter,” the spokesperson wrote.

F-2020.09.30-037

State Sen. Rosemary Bayer pictured working on her laptop.

Photo: Rosemary Bayer Caucus Page

Fear and Intimidation

Following the FBI’s visit, Reiter filed a public records request with the city of Southfield seeking more information about the encounter. City officials denied most of her request. One document she received cited a number of exemptions to public records laws, including one indicating that fulfilling her request might help “identify or provide means of identifying an informant.”

State Sen. Rosemary Bayer, who worked as a software engineer before being elected in 2019, was disturbed by the FBI’s visit to her staffer and alarmed about how the bureau might have learned about the subject of their Zoom call. Bayer said that her immediate concern was whether “they hacked into the meeting,” she told The Intercept, or whether the visit was intended “to cause fear and intimidation.”

“The whole thing feels political, like they were either trying to intimidate a Democratic office before the election or intimidate people working on the side of Black Lives Matter,” she later wrote in an email. “It all feels so Iron Curtain (or maybe J. Edgar Hoover) — men pounding on the door in the dark hours of the morning, incorrectly identifying themselves, purposely intimidating people just to scare them. To keep them from — protesting? Teaching about implicit bias?”

There isn’t any evidence that Zoom provided the FBI or any other law enforcement agency with information about the October virtual meeting, or that any such law enforcement agency somehow has real-time access to the contents of meetings on the platform. But regardless of how the FBI task force learned about the Zoom call, the incident offers a jarring reminder that the degree of privacy and confidentiality afforded by in-person meetings is impossible to achieve through streaming video calls.

The incident offers a reminder that the degree of privacy and confidentiality afforded by in-person meetings is impossible to achieve through streaming video calls.

Bayer explained that before the Covid-19 pandemic, a meeting like this one would have been a closed-door affair in Bayer’s Senate office. She believes that she or other staff on the Zoom call may have talked about “dropping” the tear gas bill before the election, using lawmakers’ shorthand for introducing legislation; the combination of words might have sounded like a threat to an uninformed eavesdropper. She added that the incident had an immediate chilling effect on the work of her staff. “The whole team is intimidated,” she said. “As soon as somebody says something that might be misconstrued, everybody stops … ‘No, don’t say that!’ We’re all trying to eliminate the word ‘drop’ from our lexicon.”

Reiter said that the FBI’s visit left her confused and fearful. “It has impacted my sleep, it has caused me quite a bit of anxiety,” she said. “And it has certainly impacted how we talk. I try not to let it, I’ll just be like, ‘No, we’re going to talk about this.’ But it’s in my mind all the time.”

“It is our job to talk about these issues, it is our job to talk about how can we be keeping our constituents safe, how can we be addressing violence in our community,” said Rosie Jones, who works for Michigan’s Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich and was alerted to the FBI’s visit by Reiter. “To not feel comfortable and talk about those things prevents us from doing our job.”

The incident came at a time of heightened tensions for Michigan legislators, after prosecutors announced terrorism, conspiracy, and weapons charges against 13 men who had plotted to storm the state Capitol building and instigate a “civil war.” Six of the men had also repeatedly met to plan the abduction of the Michigan governor, Whitmer, a frequent target of President Donald Trump’s attacks. And at least two of those arrested had participated in a rally by armed protesters outside the state Capitol earlier in the year, demonstrating against measures aimed at containing the spread of the coronavirus. The FBI’s visit to Reiter seemed particularly misplaced in light of those very real threats to the safety of legislators, she noted. “I work for the people who actually were threatened,” Reiter recalls telling the FBI agent who was interrogating her as if she had been the one posing a threat.

As protests against police brutality rocked the country after the killing of George Floyd, the FBI has devoted considerable resources to targeting Black Lives Matter protesters and anti-fascist activists, even though far-right extremist groups have long posed the greatest threat of violence.

But thanks to the post-9/11 exhortation of “If you see something, say something,” the FBI receives an enormous number of tips that it has committed to pursue no matter how absurd.

“These agents have to do hundreds, thousands of these nonsense interviews even if the allegation itself is ridiculous,” said German, the former FBI special agent, noting that task forces regularly assign less experienced agents to these interviews. “It really becomes a game of intimidation, where I’m going to look you in the eye, and make an accusation against you based on this threat I received, and see how you respond.”

“This methodology of intimidation is not necessarily effective for getting at the truth,” he added. “But it’s more obviously inappropriate when the person you’re targeting with such an approach is involved in the democratic system that the FBI is sworn to protect.”


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