The Proud Boys’ Conviction Is Big News. Their Role as FBI Informants, Not So Much.

Almost none of the reports about Thursday’s conviction of four Proud Boys members mentioned the fact that the far-right group was riddled with FBI informants. But this kind of law enforcement collusion with the far right is a profound threat to democracy.

Enri­que Tarrio, former chairman of the Proud Boys, was found guilty Thursday, May 4, 2023, of seditious conspiracy in the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol. He is seen here in Miami, where he lives, on July 16, 2021. (Pedro Portal / Miami Herald / Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

The news that four members of the far-right organization the Proud Boys were just convicted for seditious conspiracy, including their former leader Enrique Tarrio, has made the rounds this week. But if you only tuned in to the proceedings a few days ago to read about the verdict, there’s something you almost certainly haven’t heard: that both Tarrio and as many as eight other Proud Boys were secretly FBI informants, in part helping law enforcement to target Black Lives Matter protesters and other left-wing activists.

That’s because, after a non-exhaustive survey of reports covering the verdict, I discovered that only two news outlets, the Associated Press (AP) and the Washington Post, mentioned that government informants were present within the Proud Boys’ ranks, even though this fact was among the most shocking revelations that came out in the course of the trial.

That fact doesn’t just make the FBI’s failure to detect and prevent the Capitol riot even more baffling. Revelations from the trial suggested that the FBI’s historical and ongoing fixation on left-wing protests potentially blinded it to the threat of the far right, and that the bureau is even happy to collaborate with far-right groups as a way of neutralizing what it sees as a greater threat from the Left.

The AP’s reference was perfunctory — contained in a single line about how “revelations of government informants in the group” prolonged the trial — leaving the Post as the one and only news outlet that specified that Tarrio himself was a longtime informer for law enforcement in a wide range of groups beyond and before the Proud Boys. His own lawyer called him a “prolific” informer in a 2014 court proceeding.

That includes mainstream outlets like CBS, ABC, NBC, and USA Today, as well as Forbes, Reuters, Bloomberg, and Business Insider. This fact was also absent from both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal’s reports, as well as Politico’s, nor was it mentioned by the BBC or the Philadelphia Inquirer. Even Al Jazeera failed to inform its audience about this key piece of information, as did outlets like NPR and CNN, the latter of which only offhandedly and vaguely mentioned “newly unveiled evidence and informants” in a list of factors that had led to “countless delays” in the trial. The only reference to be found in Rolling Stone’s report was a sentence about how “the trial was not a bonanza of new information,” aside from “a witness that the defense hoped to call [being] revealed at the last moment to have been an FBI informant.”

But this is a misleading description of the trial. As the Washington Post — the only one of these outlets that seemed to consider the Proud Boys’ law enforcement links important enough to inform readers about — reported a month ago, government informants were not only rife within the far-right organization, but the “evidence shown in court indicates that many of the FBI sources inside the Proud Boys were asked only about their ideological opponents on the left.”

Explicitly progressive or liberal-leaning outlets were no better than the mainstream. Tarrio and other Proud Boys’ status as FBI informers was absent from Mother Jones’s write-up on the verdict, as well as those of the Guardian, Vice, Huff Post, and Salon. Democracy Now! stated that one police officer “had a relationship prior to January 6th with Tarrio, because he was gathering information from the extremist groups amassing there.” Besides ignoring the revelations, MSNBC went further and turned its reporting into something of a defense of the entities that had collaborated with the Proud Boys, calling the verdict a “massive win for the government” and warning that a failure to convict “would have emboldened the nation’s militia movement and congressional firebrands” who wanted to challenge federal law enforcement.

What’s particularly bizarre about this is that many of the outlets listed above — including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Reuters, Associated Press, and Vice — have reported previously on the trial’s exposure of the extent of FBI infiltration into the Proud Boys, as well as Tarrio’s work with law enforcement specifically.

It could be that these outlets are loath to mention just how extensively law enforcement worked with the group lest they be viewed as assisting the Proud Boys’ defense, which had pointed to the FBI’s failure to prevent the incident despite having infiltrated the group as proof that the storming of the Capitol had been unplanned. They may also be wary of appearing to side with right-wing allegations that January 6 was a “fedsurrection” organized wholesale by federal law enforcement, a conspiracy theory circulated on the Right that has revolved around dubious and unproven claims that a rioter named Ray Epps was an undercover agent — claims Epps himself has strenuously denied.

But the failure to mention the FBI’s infiltration into the Proud Boys cuts across ideological lines. Neither Fox News nor the right-leaning New York Post included the Proud Boys’s FBI connections in their reports, despite both outlets having taken an increasingly adversarial stance toward the bureau since the 2016 election.

This failure isn’t trivial. As the Washington Post put it in March, the FBI’s presence within the Proud Boys “underscores the intelligence failures in advance of January 6, as the FBI was unprepared for the riot despite having inroads into the groups now accused by the Justice Department of plotting the violence.” Those failures are as copious and serious as they are still mysterious: one of Liz Cheney’s last acts in office was to block the January 6 committee’s investigation into law enforcement failures regarding the event, and several disclosures have raised the specter of Trumpist sympathies within both the Secret Service and the FBI.

Whether intentional or not, the media’s failure to mention the FBI’s link to the Proud Boys ensures that law enforcement agencies face no accountability for their stunning failures on the day, ironically making a repeat of the Capitol riot far more likely. More alarmingly, it means the long-standing and well-documented sympathies toward the far right that exist to a concerning level inside US law enforcement won’t be cleaned up, but stay unexamined and sealed away from public scrutiny — until, at least, the next time it threatens US democracy.