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How the FBI became the target of a conspiracy theory about the Jan. 6 Capitol riot

·Reporter
·7 min read
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A theory embraced recently by conservative media personalities and politicians who support former President Donald Trump, which alleges that the violence that took place at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 was somehow orchestrated by the FBI, appears to have originated with an article on a right-wing website run by a fired Trump White House official.

On Tuesday night, Fox News host Tucker Carlson told his roughly three million viewers that it appeared “the FBI was organizing the riots of Jan. 6.” Though Carlson provided no evidence for this inflammatory allegation, his claim was quickly picked up and repeated as fact by a number of other conservative pundits and Republican lawmakers.

Over the course of two days, outraged calls for the truth about the FBI’s supposed involvement in the Capitol riots ricocheted across social media, making their way to FBI headquarters and even into the Congressional record.

The FBI false-flag narrative did not originate with Tucker Carlson, however, but with an article published Monday by Revolver News, a right-wing website run by former Trump speechwriter Darren Beattie. Beattie, who was fired from the White House in 2018 for attending a conference alongside white supremacists, was later appointed by Trump on his way out of office to a government commission that preserves Holocaust-related sites in Europe.

Supporters of President Donald Trump storm the U.S. Capitol following a rally on Jan. 6. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)
Supporters of President Donald Trump storm the U.S. Capitol following a rally on Jan. 6. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

It’s unclear whether anyone other than Beattie writes for Revolver, as no bylines appear to be on the site’s original posts, including this week’s “exclusive” suggesting the FBI was behind the Capitol riots.

The route from an obscure right-wing website to a major network program illustrates how quickly misinformation, or distorted information, can become part of a national discussion, despite an absence of evidence. This isn’t the first conspiracy theory or misinformed talking point to follow the Revolver-to-Fox News pipeline, either. Last September, for example, Beattie appeared on Carlson’s show to promote a similarly convoluted theory, first outlined on Revolver, charging that Democratic operatives and government insiders were plotting a “color revolution” to overthrow Trump in the 2020 election, which conservative commentators quickly echoed.

Similarly, Beattie’s FBI allegation was rapidly picked up by some Republican members of Congress.

“We need names and answers about the FBI operatives, who were involved in organizing and carrying out the Jan 6th Capitol riot,” tweeted Marjorie Taylor Greene, the freshman congresswoman from Georgia who has a history of promoting conspiratorial beliefs, including those associated with QAnon. Greene’s call to action was echoed by other outspoken Trump allies, like Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert, who cited Carlson’s Fox News segment and the Revolver article on the floor of the House of Representatives, entering both into the Congressional record.

Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, of Florida announced on Twitter that he’d sent a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray formally requesting that he “fully disclose the role and involvement of FBI operatives during the January 6th Capitol riot.” The FBI confirmed in an email to Yahoo News that it had received the letter from Gaetz but declined to provide any additional comment.

On Thursday night, Carlson doubled down on his claims before his primetime Fox News audience.

FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding the Jan. 6 insurrection. (Mandel Ngan/Pool via Reuters)
FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding the Jan. 6 insurrection. (Mandel Ngan/Pool via Reuters)

The Revolver article is based mostly on hypotheticals, deriving a potentially “sinister” significance from the numerous references to “unindicted co-conspirators” in several of the indictments against alleged members of far-right extremist and paramilitary groups like the Oath Keepers, Three Percenters and Proud Boys, who are accused of planning the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Based on the information contained in these charging documents, the article claims, without evidence, there to be a “disturbing possibility” that these anonymous co-conspirators were working as undercover federal agents or confidential informants.

"The government knows who they are, but the government has not charged them," Carlson said Tuesday, summarizing the Revolver article’s core implication. "Why is that? You know why. They were almost certainly working for the FBI.”

Bennett Gershman, a former prosecutor with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office and a professor at Pace University law school in New York, called that conclusion “patently ridiculous.”  

Gershman did not dispute that the FBI may have sought to infiltrate some of these extremist groups with undercover agents or informants prior to Jan. 6. 

“That’s something that’s done all the time,” he said. But, Gershman emphasized, “it’s one thing to infiltrate in order to get evidence of crime. It’s another thing to instigate and provoke.”

Some of the Proud Boys' top brass do have a history of cooperating with the FBI. In January, Reuters reported that Enrique Tarrio, a prominent leader of the group who did not enter the Capitol building on Jan. 6, worked repeatedly as an undercover informant for federal and local law enforcement for several years. And in March, Joseph Biggs, another Proud Boys leader who has been charged with conspiracy in relation to the insurrection, sought to avoid jail time by claiming in a court filing that he, too, had been in regular contact with federal and local law enforcement about the group’s activities starting in 2018. (Biggs was temporarily released before being ordered back to jail in April pending trial.)

Gershman, who previously specialized in criminal defense litigation in private practice, said it’s very common for the defense to make complaints of entrapment or government instigation in cases involving undercover agents or informants. In some cases, he acknowledged, those complaints are valid.

“There are situations where, in the past, agents have provoked and instigated crimes,” Gershman said, adding, however, that it’s highly unlikely that the unindicted co-conspirators referenced in the indictments stemming from the Capitol riots were working for the FBI prior to Jan. 6. What is possible and much more likely, he said, is that they played a key role in the attack, and may have very well been genuine accomplices of the people facing criminal charges.

“Usually, the unindicted co-conspirators are really involved in the unlawful activity,” making them particularly valuable to the government, he said. These individuals have likely evaded their own indictments by agreeing to cooperate with investigators in the aftermath of Jan. 6., and may have provided crucial evidence used to file criminal charges against their accomplices, or prosecutors may be planning to call them to testify as witnesses in a trial, according to Gershman.

The Justice Department’s internal manual states, “In the absence of some significant justification, it is generally not appropriate for a United States Attorney to identify” unindicted co-conspirators in court filings.

The FBI appears to be the latest scapegoat to emerge in the ongoing effort by Trump's allies to reframe the narrative around Jan. 6 and deflect responsibility for the violence that occurred at the Capitol away from him and his supporters. After an unsuccessful initial campaign to point the finger at left-wing agitators and antifa, a number of Republican lawmakers have continued to try to rewrite history, insisting that the actions of the violent mob that stormed the Capitol, forcing them and their colleagues to barricade in offices and take cover under desks, did not amount to a violent insurrection but rather a mostly “peaceful protest,” similar to a “normal tourist visit.”

Such efforts to downplay the severity of what happened on Jan. 6 have been used by some Republicans as a shield against further scrutiny, like the kind that would come from an independent investigation by a 9/11-style commission. Last month, Republicans blocked attempts to establish a commission to look at the Jan. 6 riot.

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