The FBI said Tuesday that a southwest Washington law enforcement agency was mistaken when it reported that federal officials described a right wing group as “extremist.”
The Clark County Sheriff’s Office wrote in an Aug. 2 report that: “The FBI categorizes the Proud Boys as an extremist group with ties to white nationalism.”
The Proud Boys are a national organization created by Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes. Local members of the group have regularly participated in violent brawls at Portland protests over the last two years.
The Clark County report was used to explain why the Sheriff’s Office fired a deputy who associated with the Proud Boys.
The top FBI official in Portland told media outlets Tuesday that the report took comments made about the Proud Boys during an August briefing out of context.
Renn Cannon, the special agent in charge of the Portland Division of the FBI, said Clark County officials requested a briefing on “domestically inspired acts of violence.”
Cannon said FBI agents presented background at the briefing on domestic threats posed by militias, white supremacists and anarchists.
“In that briefing there was a slide that talked about the Proud Boys,” Cannon said.
The slide was intended to characterize the potential for violence from individual members of the Proud Boys, according to Cannon, and not to address the group as a whole.
“There have been instances where self-identified Proud Boys have been violent,” he said. “We do not intend and we do not designate groups, especially broad national groups, as extremists.”
Clark County prosecuting attorney Tony Golick, who attended the presentation, said it lasted about an hour and a half and touched on "where these different groups are geographically, the belief systems of these groups and evidence of criminal conduct that had been gathered by the FBI."
Cannon said he understands why the Clark County Sheriff’s Office concluded that the Proud Boys had been designated as an extremist group. He said the discussion of the Proud Boys followed information describing the notorious white supremacist group The Order, which the FBI prosecuted for bank robbery and organized crime.
Cannon said the rulebook that governs FBI agents, the FBI's Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide, includes protections for civil liberties.
An unclassified version of the guide released in 2016 states that intelligence assessments must not be “based solely on First Amendment rights” or on protected characteristics such as race, religion or national origin.
Cannon said the FBI does not investigate or assess a person simply based on their affiliation or membership in a group.
“We will not do a threat assessment or open a case if we receive a report that somebody belongs to Antifa or to the Proud Boys. We do not open a case or do a threat assessment if we receive a report that somebody owns a lot of guns,” he said. “There has to be a credible allegation and a threat of violence before we would continue.”
The Proud Boys characterizes itself as a "western chauvanist" fraternal organization. However, the group's founder, Gavin McInnes, has referred to the Proud Boys as a gang and has made racist statements, according to the New York Times.
The group has been frequently embroiled in controversy and is under scrutiny by law enforcement in New York.
A member of the Proud Boys, Jason Kessler, organized the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white supremacist struck protesters with a car, killing one woman and injuring 19.
In October, a group of Proud Boys engaged in a violent brawl with counter-protesters gathered outside an event where McInnes was speaking.
The New York Police are investigating nine members who allegedly kicked, stomped and punched counter protesters. Police also arrested three counter protesters involved in the incident.
The Proud Boys claim the men were acting in self-defense and have launched a fundraising effort to support them.
In the aftermath of the Clark County report becoming public, McInnes announced he would no longer lead the group. In his announcement quitting the Proud Boys, McInnes said he continued to support the men indicted in New York.
The question of how the FBI investigates political groups and groups engaging in protected speech has been an ongoing source of controversy for the agency.
In October 2017, an FBI report on the "Black Identity Extremist" movement leaked.
The report had been prepared by the FBI’s Domestic Terrorism Analysis Unit. It warned that “Black Identify Extremist perceptions of police brutality against African Americans spurred an increase in premeditated, retaliatory lethal violence against law enforcement and will very likely serve as justification for such violence.”
A brief statement attributed to “The Elders” of the Proud Boys on a website affiliated with the group responded to Cannon's statements to the press Tuesday.
“After virtually every news outlet in America claimed we were an 'extremist organization' designated by the FBI, an FBI special agent has admitted we aren’t, and they do not intend to label us as such,” the statement read. “I wonder if the media is going to cover this development as much as the original claim?”