Earlier this month, the Department of Justice announced the arrest of a Pennsylvania man charged with threatening to kill FBI personnel after federal agents executed a search warrant at the Florida home of former President Donald Trump.
The suspect, Adam Bies, had allegedly posted a series of threats on the far-right social media platform Gab, in which he compared the FBI to Nazi- and Soviet-era secret police, discussed wanting to “slaughter” agents and wrote, among other things, “I sincerely believe that if you work at the FBI you deserve to die.” He’s been charged with interstate threats and influencing or retaliating against a federal officer.
Bies’s alleged posts were part of a deluge of violent and vulgar content that spread quickly across pro-Trump segments of social media in response to the Aug. 8 search of Mar-a-Lago, which stemmed from an investigation into the possible mishandling of classified documents that were taken from the White House after Trump’s term in office.
Outraged Trump supporters called for civil war and circulated personal information about the federal judge who approved the warrant authorizing the search, along with antisemitic threats. But the bulk of the vitriol was directed at the FBI.
On Aug. 11, one day before Bies was arrested at his home in Mercer, Pa., a man in Ohio was killed by police after he allegedly attempted to attack an FBI field office in Cincinnati with a nail gun and an AR-15. He appears to have posted a call to arms against the FBI on Truth Social, Trump’s social media platform, prior to the attempted attack.
For extremism experts and federal law enforcement alike, the Cincinnati incident highlighted how this kind of rhetoric can inspire real-world violence. But intercepting such threats can be complicated.
The Bies case offers a glimpse of how law enforcement identifies legitimate threats of violence online, and what the difference is between criminal threats and the rest of the hateful, vile and often violent — yet protected — speech that has become commonplace across social media.
“There’s always this fine line between free speech and actual threat,” said Michael Tabman, a retired FBI special agent in charge.
The criminal statute under which Bies was charged, Section 115(a)(1)(B) of Title 18 of the United States Code, makes it a crime to threaten someone simply because they are a federal agent or because they are performing their official duties. But even so, Tabman told Yahoo News, most threats are considered protected speech.
“The key question whenever you have a threats case is: Is this a true threat to harm a specific target? Or is this just free speech expressing disapproval with the performance of someone’s official duties?” said Barbara McQuade, a former federal prosecutor.
McQuade told Yahoo News that, because “courts are reluctant to criminalize speech,” the law is “a little murky” when it comes to determining what constitutes a true threat.
“The way I had always internalized it is, it needed to be a specific threat to injure, harm or kill a particular individual or group of individuals,” she said. Simply disapproving of the way the FBI operates, or even generally wishing death on the agency’s employees, would not be enough to constitute a prosecutorial offense.
“When I was in the U.S. attorney's office, we’d have a few of these every year where somebody posted something online about killing cops,” McQuade said. “And it’s hard because we would get these things from social media where people said really awful, ugly things. But even [something] like ‘All cops should die’ or ‘I wish they would die’ would not amount to what is known as a true threat.”
As of the end of June, 33 defendants had been charged with threatening a federal officer under 115(a)(1)(B) in fiscal year 2022, according to caseload data extracted from the United States Attorneys’ Case Management System and provided by the Justice Department. During fiscal years 2019, 2020 and 2021, federal prosecutors brought charges under the same statute against an average of 54.3 defendants, compared with the 37 who were charged during fiscal year 2018 and the 34 charged the year before that.
But before a prosecutor can decide whether to bring charges for a particular threat, it must first be identified and investigated by law enforcement.
As social media becomes increasingly integral to everyday life, it has naturally emerged as a key source of information for U.S. law enforcement agencies. But law enforcement’s ability to monitor social media activity has come under intense scrutiny in recent years. Federal agencies, including the FBI, have been accused of employing opaque and indiscriminate surveillance tactics that raise concerns for civil liberties advocates while at the same time drawing criticism for failing to prevent acts of violence whose perpetrators left behind a trail of red flags online.
While the agency doesn’t typically share the details of its investigative methods with the public, court documents filed in the Bies case reveal part of the process in this instance.
According to a criminal complaint and affidavit filed against Bies in Pittsburgh federal court and unsealed after his arrest, the FBI first learned about his alleged Gab posts on Aug. 11, thanks to a tip from the Middle East Media Research Institute, or MEMRI.
MEMRI is a Washington-based nonprofit that was founded in the late 1990s as a media monitoring group that produced English-language translations of Middle Eastern news reports. Since then it has expanded into tracking the activities of violent extremist groups, first with its Jihadi Terrorism Threat Monitor project and, since 2018, with the Domestic Terrorist Threat Monitor.
A spokesperson for MEMRI declined to provide specific details on the organization’s relationship with the FBI, and directed Yahoo News to a statement on its website that says, “Every single day, MEMRI receives requests for its research from U.S. government, military, and legislature, and from governments worldwide,” and that “MEMRI also assists law enforcement on research about anti-government extremists in the U.S. and Western governments.”
The FBI did not respond to a request for comment on this story, including specific questions about the agency’s work with MEMRI.
The Domestic Terrorist Threat Monitor’s director, Simon Purdue, told Yahoo News that his team of researchers manually scrapes a wide variety of social media — from mainstream sites to more fringe platforms — in search of violent threats, calls to action and other types of incitement by white supremacists, neo-Nazis and antigovernment extremists both in the United States and around the world.
The DTTM team produces reports on its findings and, when appropriate, notifies relevant authorities of threats deemed credible or “actionable.” Like McQuade, Purdue said most of the violent content his team encounters online doesn’t meet that criterion.
For example, he said, comments like “Fauci should be hanged” are “something that we see on an almost daily basis,” but that is not considered “a credible threat of violence” because it lacks intent.
However, Purdue said that “if somebody posts a picture of a gun and says they’re going to shoot [a specific] politician, that would be considered a credible threat of violence because they have the means to do it, they have a target in mind and, at the end of the day, the only step missing is their decision to act.”
While Purdue said his team is “very, very conscious of the issue of free speech,” he insisted that the kinds of threats they end up reporting on are “clearly outside of the purview [of] the First Amendment.”
“Whenever someone is posting a credible threat of violence online, it should be considered the same as standing in a public square and shouting it,” he said.
Purdue said that “on a broad scale,” his team’s work has certainly prompted law enforcement investigations and, less often, arrests. In the wake of Jan. 6, 2021, when a mob of Trump supporters violently stormed the U.S. Capitol, Purdue said his team provided authorities with “hundreds of reports” on individuals suspected of participating in the riot, contributing to what has become the biggest criminal investigation in U.S. history. More than a year and a half later, over 800 people have been charged so far in connection with the insurrection.
After Jan. 6, Purdue said his team had noticed a shift toward anti-police and antigovernment rhetoric on many of the pro-Trump social media platforms they monitor. But, he said, “it's really ramped up since the Mar-a-Lago raid, and it hasn’t slowed down.”
Since then, he said, the DTTM team has seen “dozens and dozens” of threats every day targeting federal agents. Among those that immediately attracted attention were a series of posts on Gab from a user with the handle “BlankFocus.”
According to Purdue, this wasn’t the first time his team had encountered BlankFocus, who went by the name Adam Kenneth Campbell on Gab. (Prosecutors have alleged that Campbell is an alias used by Bies.)
“He was somebody that we had previously monitored, and had been monitoring for some months, just because of his interaction with other known extremists on the platform,” Purdue told Yahoo News, adding: “It’s no secret that Gab is home to quite a lot of neo-Nazis and white supremacists.” The platform launched in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election as a conservative-run, free-speech-focused alternative to the more progressive-leaning social media giants like Twitter and Facebook, and quickly attracted many far-right extremist users who’d been kicked off those more mainstream sites.
The DTTM team compiled screenshots of Campbell’s (allegedly Bies’s) Gab activity into a report that it provided to the FBI. The report, which has been shared with Yahoo News, includes some earlier posts, written prior to the Mar-a-Lago raid, in which Campbell said he had been fired from his software and marketing job for refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine, made references to “war” and expressed a desire to see Democrats “drop dead.”
On Aug. 9, one day after FBI agents searched Mar-a-Lago, Campbell wrote that he’d just returned from a weekend of hiking with his 12-year-old son, who, he said, “is the regional archery champ, has his own rifle, shotgun, and handgun (under supervision).”
“We had seen on his profile that he had access to weapons,” Purdue said. From there, the threats became more explicit.
"Every single piece of shit who works for the FBI in any capacity, from the director down to the janitor who cleans their f***ing toilets deserves to die,” read one of several threatening comments posted by BlankFocus on Gab on Aug. 9, 10 and 11. Others include discussions of “civil war” and various weapons that could be used to inflict harm on federal agents, from rifles to “compound bows and razor tips.”
One particularly concerning post on Aug. 11 seemed to indicate that the author was willing to risk his life to accomplish his goal of killing law enforcement officers.
“I’m ready for the inevitable,” it read. “I already know I'm going to die at the hands of these piece of shit child molesting law enforcement scumbags. My only goal is to kill more of them before I drop. I will not spend one second of my life in their custody.”
McQuade, the former prosecutor, described this particular post as “one of the aggravating factors” that likely compelled the FBI to take action in this case.
That theory is bolstered by the FBI’s affidavit to support a criminal complaint against Bies, which includes screenshots provided by the DTTM of a number of posts, including the Aug. 11 one.
“Based on my training and experience, an individual that makes statements accepting the end of life is a danger to himself and society,” Special Agent Gregg Frankhouser wrote under a screenshot of the post in the affidavit. “Based on the post described herein, I believe BIES is making his intentions known that he is willing to commit violence towards law enforcement in support of his beliefs, even if that costs him his own life.”
According to court documents, after being alerted to the threatening posts by the DTTM, the FBI issued an emergency disclosure request to Gab, which promptly handed over information regarding the BlankFocus account, including the user’s email address and recent IP logs, which ultimately led the bureau to Bies.
After Bies’s arrest, Gab CEO Andrew Torba issued a warning to other users: “Let me spell this out for you in plain terms: do not post threats of violence on Gab or anywhere else on the internet. Threats of violence are not protected by the First Amendment and therefore are not protected by Gab’s Terms of Service.”
Gab also confirmed its cooperation with the FBI in a statement days later, after receiving a letter from top Democrats on the House Oversight Committee requesting information on how social media companies are responding to the spike in online threats against law enforcement officers since the search at Mar-a-Lago.
Following his initial court appearance, a grand jury indicted Bies on a total of 14 counts — seven for interstate threats and seven for influencing or retaliating against a federal officer — related to seven of his alleged posts targeting FBI officers following the Mar-a-Lago raid. If found guilty, he faces a maximum penalty of up to 10 years in prison, a fine of $250,000 or both.
Bies has pleaded not guilty. Sarah Levin, the federal public defender representing him, did not respond to a request for comment.
At a detention hearing on Aug. 19, Frankhouser reportedly testified that when agents arrived to arrest Bies at his home, he emerged from the house carrying an AR-style assault rifle before complying with commands to drop the weapon. Prosecutors said 12 other guns were found in a search of the house, including shotguns, rifles and pistols, as well as a compound bow.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Lisa Pupo Lenihan ordered Bies detained pending trial, saying, “Threatening to shoot the FBI is a threat to the community.”