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New Democratic report calls into question key GOP ‘weaponization’ claim

In a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) (above) complained about “aggressive tactics, such as SWAT teams, when apprehending suspects accused of nonviolent misdemeanors.” (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
7 min

It’s one of the more evocative claims in certain Republicans’ suggestions that the federal government has mistreated Jan. 6 defendants. It’s one of the “more disturbing” allegations, according to an attorney working with the “whistleblowers” cited by the GOP.

The claim is about how the FBI used a SWAT team to arrest a Jan. 6 defendant accused of a misdemeanor.

We now know there was significantly more to the story. And Democrats are highlighting new details as they argue that the GOP’s claims of a “weaponized” federal government are overwrought.

House Democrats took the extraordinary step Thursday of issuing a report detailing what they view as the holes in the accounts of people whom House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) has labeled whistleblowers (but whom Democrats have doubted meet the definition for that label). It details the claims of the first three people interviewed by the newly Republican-controlled committee — each of them suspended or former FBI agents — and their links to allies of former president Donald Trump.

Democrats say they wouldn’t normally disclose such things at this juncture and believe in protections for whistleblowers. They said they felt the need to do so because details of the interviews were being leaked by the GOP.

But some details contained in the witnesses’ complaints have been out there for months. And one of the most striking came from perhaps the most public of the three witnesses: Stephen Friend.

Friend has claimed that he was suspended shortly after raising objections to using a SWAT team to make a misdemeanor arrest on Aug. 24. After he made a declaration about the incident and other complaints, the incident was cited repeatedly in conservative media and in a letter from Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) to Attorney General Merrick Garland.

Johnson summarized Friend’s allegation as about the FBI using “aggressive tactics, such as SWAT teams, when apprehending suspects accused of nonviolent misdemeanors.” On her website, reporter Sharyl Attkisson described the allegation as the “agency’s heavy-handed tactics in using SWAT-style raids to arrest non-violent January 6 suspects.” Fox News’s Greg Gutfeld likened the discipline faced by Friend to “being punished for refusing to take part in a home invasion.”

Fox’s Tucker Carlson summarized Friend’s claims as concerning that the FBI using “heavily armed SWAT teams to raid the homes of American citizens who dare to criticize the administration.”

New York Post columnist Miranda Devine mentioned the claim in three columns over a one-week span in late September, with the first installment giving it a lengthy treatment and labeling Friend a “hero.” Devine told Carlson at the time that Friend “didn’t want to participate in SWAT raids on people who had just — were being, you know, accused of misdemeanors — at worst, innocent American citizens.”

But throughout, such commenters showed remarkably little curiosity about the details of the actual Aug. 24 arrest, including who was arrested.

Others were piecing it together, though. As early as Sept. 22 — a day after Devine’s first column published — NBC News’s Ryan Reilly deduced that the arrested individual was Tyler Bensch.

In announcing that arrest, the Justice Department described Bensch as a “self-identified militia member” whose group “adheres to the ideology of the ‘Three Percenters.'” The Three Percenters view the government as having tyrannical tendencies and believes it must be kept in check by armed groups. Canada has labeled it a terrorist group.

What’s more, pictures included in the Justice Department’s filings show Bensch wearing what the agency described as fatigues, a tactical vest and a gas mask, and possessing “one or more chemical irritants” while on restricted Capitol grounds on Jan. 6. The government alleges Bensch used the chemical irritants on two people, including one whom the crowd around him claimed was “antifa.”

And two witnesses described Bensch as posting photos and a video of himself on Jan. 6 and at an earlier Washington demonstration in December with what appeared to be an “AR-style rifle.”

Bensch’s arrest was announced alongside the arrests of four other alleged members of the militia. His was the only case in which the defendant wasn’t charged with a felony.

And now Democrats suggest Friend has effectively acknowledged that Bensch’s case might have satisfied the requirements for using a SWAT team.

According to House Democrats’ report, Friend acknowledged in an interview with the committee that he didn’t actually know much about the case at the time. He said he didn’t “know which individual SWAT was being used for, because I was never privy to the operations plan that was drafted.”

Friend was asked whether the available evidence made it reasonable for law enforcement to conclude Bensch possessed an AR-style rifle, and he responded, “Yes.” He was read the statement of facts from Bensch’s case and asked whether it was reasonable to conclude Bensch had engaged in acts of violence, and Friend again answered, “Yes.”

Ultimately, Friend acknowledged there were factors that might lead the FBI to conclude a SWAT team was appropriate under a risk assessment form, also known as a “matrix.”

“I think being a gun owner meets that matrix, and those individuals were,” he said.

While Friend’s initial declaration and much of the coverage focused on the fact that this was a misdemeanor arrest, Friend later detailed other concerns.

The declaration summarized the situation by saying, “I responded that it was inappropriate to use an FBI SWAT team to arrest a subject for misdemeanor offenses and opined that the subject would likely face extended detainment and biased jury pools in Washington, D.C.”

Friend said he suggested they could use a court summons or surveil the subject to find an “optimal” time to carry out the arrest.

Since then, Friend has also suggested that the suspect might have cooperated, and that such force from the FBI was therefore excessive. In a February interview, he cited a transcript in which the suspect said, “If you need anything from me, just let me know.” He also emphasized this in his interview with the committee, concluding of using a SWAT team, “I felt that that was an unnecessary tool to use for that particular individual,” according to materials reviewed by The Washington Post.

But Democrats noted that the suggestion of potential cooperation wasn’t in the initial complaint and cast doubt on Bensch’s true interest in cooperating. Friend said the fact that his initial declaration didn’t cite potential cooperation was an “oversight,” according to the Democrats’ report.

Reached for comment, Jason Foster, the founder and chair of Empower Oversight, an advocacy group working with Friend, told The Post that Friend was merely arguing for the “least amount of force necessary to execute the warrant safely.”

“He outlined for his supervisors, and for the committee, less risky alternatives to SWAT operations that are commonly used and that could have been employed,” Foster said. “He also testified to the committee that the subject had expressed a willingness to speak again voluntarily with the FBI during a previous contact.”

While Friend’s version of events has been a focal point for some Republicans and in conservative media, it was not included in Jordan’s November 1,000 page -“whistleblower” report alleging that such claims showed “the politicization of the FBI and Justice Department.”

When asked about the claim in late September by Just The News, Jordan didn’t seem to lean in as hard as some others. But he did mention it in the context of other supposedly overzealous moves by the FBI, including raiding Trump’s residence at Mar-a-Lago for classified documents Trump had failed to turn over.

“There’s other ways to do this, in this agent’s assessment of things, and he wanted to let our office know that,” Jordan said. “Again, I guess you step back and think of it for a second. There were other ways to deal with President Trump. I mean, for goodness sake.”