The FBI confirmed Wednesay that members of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church were part of a training program for agents and police officials at two separate bureau facilities, a move that has now been abandoned.
According to an NPR report, the FBI had first invited the members of the infamous church based at Topeka, Kan., in 2008, but it was in the most recent sessions in Virginia, three at Quantico and one in Manassass, that controversy erupted.
Paul Bresson, the bureau spokesman, said that the invitation to Westboro “was done in an effort to establish open dialogue in an academic setting to train law enforcement on how to more effectively engage with the activist community,” The Associated Press reported.
Timothy Phelps, a church leader and the youngest son of Westboro head Fred Phelps, told NPR he had spoken to local law enforcement professionals at the FBI Academy at Quantico and then again Manassass.
He said the program was designed to teach agents “how to stay measured when they are speaking with a witness or a suspect with whom they have a strong, visceral disagreement."
And, Westboro Baptist Church specializes in arousing strong, visceral disagreements.
It is notorious for its provocative actions and, in the past, has received widespread condemnation for using hate-filled language against homosexuals and Jews as well as protesting at the funerals of U.S. soldiers who died in Iraq. The self-proclaimed church whose membership is largely made up of family of Pastor Fred Phelps has been holding demonstrations to thank God for 9/11. The strongly anti-gay group had recently protested against the New York City Gay Parade held Sunday.
Phelps said: “We did an opening dialogue about the history of the church and what led us to this point in our ministry and specifically led us to the point where we were holding protests or pickets in proximity to the soldiers’ funerals.
“Then the class opened up and they were entitled to ask any questions they wanted.”
Law enforcement officials who attended the session said it was focused on domestic terrorism. They were told that interacting with Westboro members they could observe extremists up close and understand what makes them tick.
While the FBI claims the church group knew this, Phelps denies any prior knowledge about being a part of a domestic terrorism curriculum. He, however, had thought he was there to help FBI agents sharpen their interrogation techniques.
Implying that the FBI misled them, Phelps said, “Law enforcement across this nation uses false information frequently with us.”
Earlier, Phelps admitted that sessions were contentious. “Some of the students in the class take the gloves off and basically push the envelope about, ‘what will happen when the day comes that your so-called leader tells you to use violence,’” Phelps said. “Our leader won’t tell us to do anything except what is written in Scripture. We don’t have a leader like what they want to believe we have. ... We have a preacher.”
FBI officials said there had been about 50 local law enforcement officials and agents in each session, and added that no payment was made to Westboro for its participation. Timothy Phelps confirmed the same.
Members of Westboro were “respectful” when they were on the base and did not cause any disruption, according to an official, who was not identified. He added, “It wasn’t the purpose to give them another outlet to vent their views. It was more academic,” reported CNN.
However, the top brass at the FBI were not too pleased about the Westboro sessions.
The program was brought to halt when Thomas Browne, assistant director for the FBI, strongly objected to bringing the extremist group that pickets at military funerals to a military facility. Browne’s one-line-long memo discontinuing the training program read: The FBI is not to invite Westboro to any of its training sessions again, NPR reported.
“We are not endorsing these groups at all,” the unnamed official clarified to CNN. “The reality is there are groups out there who are making presence [sic.] known who the police have to encounter.”
Federal agencies have often engaged with extremist groups within the U.S. and abroad to better understand their motives, beliefs, and reasons for violent behavior.