Last week, several media stories reported on the FBI file of late Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps being made public "for the first time." But the bulk of the files were actually released to GovernmentAttic.org and others in 2011 in response to a FOIA request for documents relating to the Westboro Baptist Church — many of which were less redacted than those released last week.
That includes this 1996 email sent to Phelps, heavily redacted in the recent documents but unredacted in 2011:
You and your family are drippings from the devil's dick. You have no right to call yourself's [sic] christian. Your church is doing the devil's work. Hatred is not a christian value. If Rev. Fred or any other members of that viper den show up in SF again, you will leave in body bags. I guarantee it. My own arsenal includes an AK47, M16, streetsweeper shotgun…There is a lot of us queers who are armed to the teeth. There is a price on all your heads. Rich queers are putting up the money. You WILL be exterminated. It might be a truckbomb, an assault weapon attack, or my favorite, poison gas. I would be careful if I was you. You would never know when and where we will strike. Die you cocksucker.
"We have probably the least popular doctrinal position of anybody around," Steve Drain, a top Westboro official, tells VICE News. "We base our belief systems on strict adherence to scripture, so when we hold up a sign that says 'God hates fags,' we're not saying anything that's out of bounds, scripturally. But we believe part of our job is to have public-facing ministry, to put forth a public message, so threats of violence just kind of go with the territory."
Pacific Bell identified the person who emailed the death threat to Phelps as a Bay Area woman, and an internal FBI memo describes a visit paid to her home on August 13, 1996 by FBI and Secret Service agents. The documents released last week show that the unidentified woman confessed to "just blowing off steam" when she made the threats, but added that she is "affected by his comments because [redacted]."
However, the 2011 release show agents' handwritten notes from this meeting, which reveal, "Said it affected her because she has AIDS and is dying."
Ex-FBI Agent Michael German spent much of his 15-year career with the bureau infiltrating domestic extremist groups. He said organizations that take extremely inflammatory positions — a category into which the Westboro Baptist Church certainly falls — "regularly receive" what they consider to be threatening messages. And since emails tend to travel interstate, the FBI usually has jurisdiction.
"Usually the first step is to see whether an actual threat was made, versus just harsh or angry invective," German tells VICE News. "Often, something might feel threatening to the person who receives it, but it's not actually conveying a threat. Oftentimes, if the FBI just sort of wags its finger and says, 'Don't do it again,' that works."
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Large portions of a 2002 email exchange between a neo-Nazi group called the National Socialist Movement (NSM) and the Westboro Baptist Church were redacted in the latest document release. However, the 2011 release reveals the exchange in its entirety, in which Phelps and company seek to maintain distance from the NSM.
On October 27, an email was sent from an NSM representative to "firstname.lastname@example.org." After greeting his "Christian Friends at Westboro Baptist Church," the NSM representative offered his organization's support at an anti-gay rally the church was planning to hold in Pennsylvania.
'We do not want or need ANY kind of storm troopers at any of our pickets…. We are armed ONLY with words!'
"When the NSM had our White Unity Rally in Topeka, KS on the 2nd to last weekend of August, the WBC did not denounce us; therefore the NSM in the Lehigh Valley, PA would like to send a detachment of UNIFORMED NSM STORMTROOPERS TO STAND SHOULDER TO SHOULDER WITH THE PICKETERS OF THE WBC," the email read.
A Westboro representative responded two days later with a cheery "Thank you for writing!" before declining the proposal. "We do not ask anyone to stand with us at our open air services. We do not do stormtroopers, uniforms, etc."
The exchange continued, with the NSM rep quickly writing back to clarify that "Only the members of the NSM would be in full STORMTROOPER uniform." But if it was going to cause "any sort of disfunction [sic] to your event which could give the enemies of our Risen Lord fuel for criticizing us," the NSM was willing to stay away.
"I want to be VERY clear with you," email@example.com wrote back. "We do not want or need ANY kind of storm troopers at any of our pickets…. We are armed ONLY with words! Thanks!"
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One of the FBI memos shows that the Bureau knew Phelps was "very aware of the law and manage[d] to stay just within its boundaries." He normally had a lawyer (usually also a family member) acting as the church's spokesperson at protests, and all demonstrations were filmed to identify anyone who interfered.
Phelps was actually a civil rights lawyer in the 1960s, and has been described as a "brilliant" one by those who knew him. He was disbarred in 1979 by the Kansas Supreme Court for showing "little regard for the ethics of his profession," but the Phelps Law Firm in Topeka, founded by Phelps in 1964, remains open and staffed primarily by members of the Phelps family.
"The media portrays us as a bunch of uneducated, knuckle-dragging hillbillies," Drain says. "But we are stable, educated people who just happen to believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible."
The church has always had a respectful relationship with law enforcement, Drain explained, and said it is "standard protocol" for church officials to get in touch with police well before they show up in town for a demonstration.
One of the documents in Phelps's FBI file confirms this. A memo from the Bureau's Madison, Wisconsin field office reads: "On 4/4/2001, Phelps sent a facsimile message to Madison Mayor Sue Bauman in which he thanked her for providing police protection for his group.
"He then advised that he would also need 'adequate police presence and protection' on 6/9/2001 when he plans to return to Madison to burn the Wisconsin state flag at a noon ceremony at the capitol flagpole."
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