News, Views, Happiness Pursued

Teenager or Terrorist?

Leaked documents reveal that a DHS operated Maine spy agency spread warnings of Black Lives matter protest violence based on far-right rumors.

by | Jul 29, 2020

photo/Michael Heathers

On June 19 (Juneteenth) of this year, the pro-transparency group Distributed Denial of Secrets published “BlueLeaks,” a massive database of internal communications and intelligence reports from hundreds of law enforcement agencies nationwide. The BlueLeaks breach shed light on a secretive network of domestic-intelligence agencies known as Fusion Centers, which were established by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) after 9/11 to improve communication between local, state and federal authorities.  

The BlueLeaks files show the Fusion Centers’ work has expanded far beyond counterterrorism to include all types of crime — from domestic violence to drug possession and petty theft. The Fusion Center in Maine is called the Maine Information and Analysis Center (MIAC). Established by Gov. John Baldacci in 2006, it’s run by the State Police, has about a dozen employees, and its budget was $800,000 this year, nearly all of that from Maine taxpayers.

According to a whistleblower lawsuit filed by a Maine State Trooper this spring, MIAC has collected intelligence on Mainers opposed to Central Maine Power’s controversial transmission-line project (and shared its findings with CMP), maintained a database of gun owners’ personal information in violation of federal law, and has scrutinized volunteer counselors at the Seeds of Peace summer camp in Otisfield. 

BlueLeaks further revealed that MIAC has also been closely tracking this summer’s protests against police brutality throughout Maine, including not only the large demonstrations in Portland, but modest events like a vigil at York Town Hall and “a gathering at the Aroostook Centre Mall in Presque Isle,” noted Beacon, the news outlet of the Maine People’s Alliance. 

Mainer’s investigation into the BlueLeaks database examined the sources for MIAC’s intelligence reports. We found that MIAC has been warning local police to prepare for violence instigated by anti-racism protesters based on rumors and conspiracy theories circulated online by far-right activists, including a man in Boston associated with a violent hate group. Two other official alerts were based on jokes — Internet gags taken seriously by state and federal agents after fringe groups like QAnon spread them online, claiming the comedy was evidence of plots to cause mayhem by amorphous leftist forces like Antifa.  

On June 2, the Boston Division of the FBI created an internal Situational Information Report about “Possible Placement of Stacks of Rocks and Bricks at protests” — projectiles “placed strategically” for later use against police or property. MIAC distributed that report to local police departments across the state.  

The FBI report was based on a screenshot of a Facebook page called Liberty Rally on Boston City Hall. That page was created in April, by a burly pro-Trump biker who calls himself “the Wolfmann,” in protest of Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s closure of businesses to limit the spread of COVID-19. The Wolfmann believed those public health measures are part of a tyrannical conspiracy to strip Americans of their Constitutional rights. 

Earlier posts on the Wolfmann’s page, which is followed by over 800 people, promoted a May 16 protest at Baker’s home co-sponsored by Super Happy Fun America, the group that organized the 2019 Boston Straight Pride Parade. According to journalist Will Sommer, who wrote about the homophobic hate rally for the Daily Beast, Super Happy Fun America is a front for the violent white-nationalist organization Resist Marxism. 

The Wolfmann wrote on Facebook that he’d “personally” seen a stack of bricks or stones intended for use as weapons by protesters. “We think this is all part of the big plan,” he posted. 

Contacted by Mainer, the Wolfmann said he couldn’t provide photographic evidence of protestors planting bricks. “Facebook kept deleting” those incriminating photos, he said, “because they are BLM supporters.” 

Also in early June, a Twitter account called Marlene45MAGA posted two pictures of bricks neatly stacked next to a sidewalk and a roadway, likewise implying that these masonry materials were stashed there to cause havoc. The BlueLeaks database includes a re-tweet of the post that declares, “BRICKS SET UP TO FUEL PROTEST!” as well as a hashtag claiming Antifa is a “domestic terrorist” organization. 

These tweets were the basis of another official warning disseminated by MIAC. “Twitter user claims piles of bricks are being staged around the United States to fuel violent opportunists in major cities,” the alert reads. “Source claims this is a tactic, technique and procedure (TTP) being used by … Antifa.” A related alert contained in another BlueLeaks file elaborates: “Prestaging normally innocuous material prior to a protest is an established tactic promoted in anarchist extremist literature.” 

A scroll through Marlene45MAGA’s Twitter feed reveals a cesspool of racist, pro-Trump, COVID-conspiracy rantings similar to the posts and comments on the Wolfmann’s page. The account almost exclusively re-tweets other posts, at all hours of the day and night; it has over 51,000 followers and is “following” nearly 49,000 other users — strong indications that its function is purely political and at least partly automated. Yet this anonymous, bot-like account was also treated by MIAC as a credible source of intelligence about potential violence at Black Lives Matter protests.   

The use of such sources provides “more support for the political nature of intel analysis,” said Brendan McQuade, a professor at the University of Southern Maine whose 2019 book, Pacifying the Homeland: Intelligence Fusion and Mass Supervision, examines Fusion Centers like MIAC in the context of mass incarceration and social control. The Wolfmann, for example, “is clearly not disinterested or credible,” McQuade observed, “yet he’s taken as fact and … laundered by the MIAC.”

Maine State Police Major Christopher Grotton, who previously ran MIAC and now oversees administrative functions at the center, spoke with Mainer about our findings. 

When reports of suspicious activity are sent to MIAC, “we are certainly considering the source and veracity of the source,” Grotton said. “Sometimes we can independently verify that, other times we take it at face value. If we set as a threshold that we are going to independently verify every piece of information that goes out, then we would be sharing almost no information.” 

In the case of the Wolfmann’s allegation about caches of bricks, Grotton said, “we don’t need to verify that, it’s not important.” That’s because the Wolfmann’s intel didn’t describe a specific threat, Grotton explained, but rather a general tactic allegedly used by violent agitators. This type of information, even if unconfirmed, is useful because it enhances local cops’ “situational awareness,” he said. “Now law enforcement prepares for that. They can work with others to be prepared for bricks, and other weapons.”

Furthermore, Grotton said “we’ve personally seen” stacks of bricks or stones set up for use as projectiles during protests in Maine. “We know that it has, or can, happen at protests,” he said. “It’s important to share that information.” (Grotton did not provide specifics regarding where or when this has happened in Maine.)   

On June 3, another Situational Information Report, this one prepared by the FBI’s San Antonio Division, stated that “unidentified individuals discussed various websites for payment to agitate and commit violent acts.” Payments to “violent agitators” were made “anonymously via Bitcoin” and “were rumored to be managed by members of Antifa.” The report claims that “targets and locations were also discussed on the websites.” 

The two sites cited in the report are crowdsondemand.com and protestjobs.com

Crowds on Demand is a legitimate public-relations business, based in Beverly Hills, that provides paid participants for corporate and media events. 

Protest Jobs, however, is entirely satirical. The site’s creator (who spoke to Mainer on condition of anonymity due to online threats and harassment) published it in 2017 as a joke to mock right-wing conspiracies about paid leftist protesters. It offers a variety of “Protest Packages,” like “EZ-Riot,” which includes up to 25 “masked rioters guaranteed to cause havoc and confusion” for the low price of $99 each. Plus, there’s a “Car/Dumpster fire upgrade option” available, and a “broken store front window” is included as a “free upgrade.”  

The Protest Jobs site had been dormant for years until this May, when uprisings began nationwide following the police killing of George Floyd. BuzzFeed News reporter Jane Lytvynenko contacted the site’s creator on May 31 and informed him that Protest Jobs was going viral via far-right Facebook groups, whose members cited it as proof that anti-fascists were paying people to cause chaos at demonstrations. BuzzFeed subsequently reported that Facebook posts about the site were shared over 30,000 times, generating upwards of a million visits to protestjobs.com. 

“I woke up Monday morning after Jane called and there had been 500,000 people on the site overnight,” the prankster said. “Literally all the shares and traffic were coming from Facebook.” 

Protest Jobs “was being used to delegitimize protests all over the place,” said a researcher working for BuzzFeed. “Most of the people who were sharing it were convinced that it was real.”

The fact-checking outlet Snopes published a story on May 31 debunking the myth that Protest Jobs was a real service. By the following day, its creator had added a prominent disclaimer to the site that reads: “REAL: 120,000+ AMERICANS ARE DEAD. FAKE: THIS WEBSITE. REAL: TRUMP IS A FAILURE.” And on June 3, the Fact Check team of the news service Reuters also published an article pointing out that the site is satirical.    

Yet that same day, the FBI office in Texas was taking Protest Jobs deadly serious. Its report states: “The company offers a variety of protest packages that include, but are not limited to, providing spray paint artists, broken storefront windows, and car and dumpster fire upgrade options.” 

That FBI report was sent to local cops in early June by MIAC, with the warning that it “discusses the use of various websites for payment to individuals who agitate and commit violent acts during protests.” 

A similarly farcical incident involves the claim that a 19-year-old was training terrorists via a comedy video she posted on the social media platform TikTok. 

On May 31, a DHS report alleged the teen was providing “tips on how to riot.” Two days later, in its alert to local police departments, MIAC warned that the comedy clip was “providing tactics, techniques and procedures on how to interfere with the US National Guard during riots.” 

The teen who made the TikTok video goes by the username Weirdsappho, and is also commenting anonymously due to online attacks. Her posts on the social media site are “mainly comedy around the gay leftist TikTok realm,” she told Mainer, and typically garner a few hundred views. The video cited by DHS was “a joke,” she said. 

In the TikTok clip, Weirdsappho first displays a satirical tweet from the stand-up comedian Jaboukie Young-White, a correspondent for The Daily Show, that “thanks” police for “bringing in the army” to combat peaceful protesters. The tweet encourages protesters to throw “water balloons filled w sticky liquids (esp some sort of sugar/milk/syrup combo)” at tanks, in order to “support our troops.”

Weirdsappho’s video continues for another 30 seconds, during which she displays images of replies to the comic’s tweet. One reply is a picture of a tank with the caption: “here’s what you’re aiming at.” Other TikTok users suggest that balloons filled with “cornstarch” or “soap” would be “really hard for our troops to clean off,” and another mused about “joyriding” in tanks. 

Before being contacted by Mainer, Weirdsappho was unaware her comedy bit was being spread by federal and state authorities as if it were an instructional video for would-be rioters. But she’s pretty sure how the post got on the DHS’ radar.     

“Once the video went viral on TikTok, conservatives started duetting/reacting to the video, taking it seriously,” she said. “I started getting threats on the video and folks reaching out to my Instagram listing my phone number and personal info.”

The video was subsequently posted on Twitter, where adherents to the perverse far-right QAnon conspiracy theory “took it and ran with it,” Weirdsappho said. Tweets by QAnon trolls sharing the video garnered thousands of likes and retweets. 

Some QAnon accounts claimed Weirdsappho was part of a “pedophile network,” based on “satanic” images in her video (QAnon followers believe Earth is controlled by a cabal of Satanic pedophiles). Many tweets also called her a “terrorist” and tagged the official FBI and CIA Twitter accounts, which is likely how the clip came to the attention of federal agents. 

“I ended up making the video private and eventually deleted it,” Weirdsappho said. “It had broken past my normal crowd of lefties. MAGA types who regularly troll creators like me started to see my content and they were almost exclusively the ones commenting from there on out.”

“There’s a careful vetting process,” Grotton said of MIAC’s threat assessments. “It’s thoughtful and conscientious. When we distribute information that isn’t verified, we are characterizing it in that fashion. … I believe we are vetting things when it’s necessary to do so, and we’re doing a good job.”

“No one is comparing a 19-year-old making a TikTok video to a terrorist threat,” Grotton asserted. “We’re just saying to tuck this in the back of your mind.”

“Law enforcement is going to evaluate information for themselves — the veracity, importance, credibility,” Grotton continued. “Literally, MIAC is passing on info, saying, ‘This is what we know.’ Then law enforcement is going through a vetting process. But what they’re not doing is going out and changing behavior. They are just changing preparation.”

Yet if, based on reports from MIAC, local cops steel themselves to face protesters who’ve stashed weapons or who’ve been trained and paid to cause trouble, how can that not increase tension and lead to more conflict between police and demonstrators?     

“I don’t think it builds toward escalating,” Grotton said. “I don’t think it changes law enforcement’s posture.” Speaking of the brick conspiracy theory, Grotton said, “there is nothing bad that can happen” as a result of sharing that intel. “I can’t imagine any scenario where there is any negative result from this.”

Challenged on the point that MIAC is issuing warnings about satire like protestjobs.com, Grotton defended his agency’s approach. “I don’t think you can dismiss those sites,” he said. “You don’t have to look too far to see people have committed terrible acts after posting on social media. So we have to share that information.” 

“If we don’t share it, there is a huge risk,” Grotton added. “What if someone is making a joke on Facebook about blowing up a small business? Should we share that? Absolutely. May it save a life? Yes. You’d be very surprised.”

MIAC doesn’t do any street-level detective work. In addition to serving as a hub to share information, its agents spend a lot of time surfing the ’net, perusing social media platforms and websites for signs of suspicious activity. It’s what Maine Department of Public Safety Commissioner Mike Sauschuck, a former Portland Police Chief, called “armchair investigating.”

“We’re not spying on people,” Sauschuck told state lawmakers during a hearing on MIAC’s activities this summer. “This is public information that is readily available.”

This practice, also known as “open-source intelligence” gathering, “often amounts to chasing ghosts: hyping up non-issues (protest become terrorism) or spamming local cops with information about minor issues,” said McQuade, the USM professor and author. “Fusion Center personnel have to justify their existence.”

And they’ve been in the hot seat before. 

In 2012, a bipartisan Senate report concluded that the centers were “pools of ineptitude” that often trampled on civil liberties and privacy rights. “In reality, our investigation found that the Fusion Centers often produced irrelevant, useless or inappropriate intelligence reporting to DHS, and many produced no intelligence reporting whatsoever,” the report said. 

This also isn’t the first time Fusion Centers have been called out for targeting Black Lives Matter activists — they did the same thing after protests erupted following the murder of Michael Brown six years ago.   

“Any time the government is collecting massive amounts of information about citizens, that raises concerns,” Zachary Heiden, Legal Director of the ACLU of Maine, told the Portland Press Herald in 2015. “We know that fusion centers in other states have targeted groups that are using their First Amendment rights — the Occupy movement, Black Lives Matter — and that’s very troubling.”

Following the whistleblower’s allegations and revelations in the BlueLeaks database that MIAC is surveilling peaceful protests, a legislative committee called Sauschuck and Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey to the proverbial carpet to answer some hard questions. State lawmakers suggested the millions of dollars Mainers have spent on MIAC over the years could be put to more constructive use, and spoke of limiting the scope of the center’s work to refocus on the danger of terrorism.

Grotton pushed back at assertions that MIAC could be defunded or disbanded without negative consequences. “Is MIAC providing value? Absolutely,” Grotton told Mainer. “Is MIAC providing value that no one else can in Maine? Absolutely. Absent of MIAC, the state of Maine would be dropping back about 20 years with our ability to communicate with the federal government.”

Last month, Democrats on the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee introduced an amendment that would require MIAC to produce an annual report on its activities for lawmakers to review. If passed, it’d be a baby step toward accountability for an agency long shrouded in secrecy and immune to public oversight. But to critics like McQuade, who advocate for the abolition of Fusion Centers, it’s a step in the right direction. 

“I feel an urgency to act on this issue,” McQuade wrote in an open letter to several state lawmakers this summer. “I feel an urgency because of this political moment. The pandemic, the unfolding depression, the whistleblower complaint, and George Floyd Rebellion are all lining up in ways that could put the MIAC on the chopping block.”

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