STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Both abroad and at home, federal authorities want to understand extremist groups. That is the reason that a controversial American group received an invitation from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
NPR has learned that the FBI held training sessions that included members of the Westboro Baptist Church. They're known for picketing soldiers' funerals with signs like: Thank God for dead soldiers.
The Supreme Court upheld the group's right to hold protests, no matter how offensive. But it's still a surprise to find them in FBI training sessions.
NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has our report.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: The FBI acknowledges that inviting Westboro leaders to talk to police and agents may have been a mistake. In an email obtained by NPR, a top official at the Bureau made clear that the group would not be allowed to come back to talk again. But that came only after Westboro leaders had already addressed several training sessions.
Mr. TIMOTHY PHELPS (Westboro Baptist Church): I've done three sessions at Quantico for the national law enforcement, one session at Manassas.
TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Timothy Phelps, one of the leaders of Westboro Baptist Church.
The FBI has a training academy at Quantico, a Marine base just outside of Washington. And the Bureau also has a large facility in Manassas, Virginia. Phelps spoke at both.
Mr. PHELPS: 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. And then the class opened up, and they were entitled to ask any questions they wanted to ask.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The FBI says it invites controversial speakers to address agents and local enforcement officers all the time. White supremacists, including members of the Ku Klux Klan, have come in to talk to trainees. The FBI says agents and police learn more about these kinds of groups, which can help with investigations later.
But the Westboro situation was a little different. First, there's the reason why Westboro was brought to teach. This is why Phelps thought he was invited.
Mr. PHELPS: In that particular instance, they were wanting the agents to learn how to stay measured when they are speaking with a witness or a suspect with whom they have a strong, visceral disagreement.
TEMPLE-RASTON: In other words, he thought he was there to help sharpen interrogation techniques. But, in fact, officials who attended the session said that that class was focused on domestic terrorism, which could explain why Phelps got questions like this.
Mr. PHELPS: 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. Our leader won't tell us to do anything except what's written in Scripture. We don't have a kind of a leader like what they want to believe we have. We have a preacher.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The FBI claims that the group knew they were part of a domestic terrorism study session. But when I told Phelps about how the group apparently fit into the FBI training program, he was surprised. Then he shrugged it off as par for the course.
Mr. PHELPS: Law enforcement across this nation uses false information frequently with us. It's an old, tired shtick.
TEMPLE-RASTON: There were a lot of people at the FBI who were angry when they found out about the Westboro sessions. It's not just that the FBI invited the controversial group to address its ranks. Another complicating factor was that the FBI invited a group that pickets military funerals to a military base.
What's more, in this case, it appears the top brass at the FBI only found out about the Westboro invitation late, only after more than 200 officers and agents had already attended the sessions. The FBI did concede that it could see why all this was controversial.
Westboro's Timothy Phelps, for his part, says even though he thinks the FBI lied to him, he would come back to speak to the officers if he was asked. But that's unlikely to happen. A memo from the FBI's assistant director for training, Thomas Brown, put an end to Westboro's partnership with the FBI. It was one line long: The FBI, it said, is not to invite Westboro to any of its training sessions again.
Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.
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