The FBI confirmed Wednesday that it invited members of the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church to speak at counterterrorism training sessions, to teach new agents about domestic terrorists.
NPR first reported Wednesday that members of Westboro Baptist Church attended four sessions this spring, three at Quantico Marine base in Virginia and one at an FBI facility in Manassass, but the program was canceled after complaints from within the Bureau.
Westboro Baptist, which is based in Kansas and led by Fred Phelps, is notorious for picketing funerals of members of the military killed in action with anti-gay signs.
Timothy Phelps, Fred’s son, told Dina Temple-Raston of NPR that he was told the program was meant 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.” He contends he didn’t realize he was going to be studied as an example of a domestic terrorist.
“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,’” he 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.”
In the past, the FBI has had similar programs with members of the KKK, but Thomas Brown, the assistant director of the FBI’s Training Division, issued a memo putting the kibosh on any future sessions with Westboro Baptist.
According to Temple-Raston, the FBI agent who initially made the arrangement with Westboro Baptist “said he found the group personally distasteful, but thought police and FBI agents needed to learn how to engage people they disagreed with and find ways to build relationships with them.”
And one anonymous official told CNN that “it wasn’t the purpose to give them another outlet to vent their views. It was more academic.”
“We are not endorsing these groups at all,” the official said. “The reality is there are groups out there who are making presence known who the police have to encounter.”