The Brainwashing of the Cleveland 5

June 4, 2012

On April 30, 2012, the FBI arrested five men affiliated with Occupy Cleveland. According to Special Agent Ryan M. Taylor’s affidavit, Brandon Baxter, Anthony Hayne, Joshua Stafford, Connor Stevens, and Douglas Wright were apprehended “after placing two inert IEDs at the base of the Brecksville-Northfield High Level Bridge and attempting repeatedly to detonate those IEDs.” They did so by dialing a phone number to trigger the devices—a phone number provided by the undercover FBI agent who also sold them the fake explosives.

The Cleveland 5 faced life in prison on three charges, to which they initially pled not guilty: attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction to destroy property used in interstate commerce, conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction to destroy property used in interstate commerce, and attempted use of an explosive device to damage or destroy real property used in interstate commerce. Judge David Dowd, Jr. initially proposed a trial date of September 11, then settled on September 17 after defense attorneys protested.

This was the first time FBI strategies of infiltration and escalation resulted in charges against participants in the Occupy movement. In this case, the agency may be responsible not only for entrapment but for even more egregious malfeasance which amounts to brainwashing.

On April 29—the day before the Cleveland arrests—The New York Times published an opinion piece by journalist David K. Shipler under the headline “Terrorist Plots, Hatched by the F.B.I.” Shipler described an increasingly utilized FBI tactic of fostering terrorist plots in order to catch potential criminals. “Typically,” writes Shipler, “the stings initially target suspects for pure speech—comments to an informer outside a mosque, angry posting on websites, emails with radicals overseas—then woo them into relationships with informers, who are often convicted felons working in exchange for leniency.” Those subjected to this tactic lack the knowledge, connections, and materials necessary to commit a crime, so the FBI supplies them. James Cromitie, for example, was convicted of attempting to bomb synagogues and shoot down military aircraft. “Only the government could have made a ‘terrorist’ out of Mr. Cromitie, whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in its scope,” said Judge Colleen McMahon, although she nonetheless sentenced him to 25 years in prison. “Of the 22 most frightening plans for attacks since 9/11 on American soil,” Shipler concluded, “14 were developed in sting operations.”

As in their entrapment of Muslims, the FBI seems to have picked low-hanging fruit in Cleveland: naive young men seeking to make a difference in the world. Even Taylor’s affidavit makes it clear these alleged conspirators were coached extensively by felon Shaquille Azir, an FBI informant similar to those described by Shipler. Will Potter writes that “what’s troubling is that the government has had a heavy hand in creating the very plot it thwarted. And on top of that, the defendants, by the admission of the FBI, said repeatedly that they had no intention of harming anyone.” Potter compares the case to that of environmentalist Eric McDavid, who was also provided with plans, supplies, and encouragement by an FBI infiltrator.

Azir supplied more than encouragement and fake explosives, however. Based on interviews with friends and family members of the Cleveland 5, Arun Gupta concludes that Azir “provided the five with jobs, money, a place to live, a friendly ear, beer, pot, the prescription stimulant Adderall, and most significant, the ideas and means to carry out a plot conceived by the Bureau itself.” Similarly, Jake Olzen writes, based on an interview with Cleveland activist Richard Schulte, that “Azir would give them a case of beer in the morning,… have them work outside on houses all day, and then give them a case of beer at night. He gave them marijuana and would wear them down by keeping them up late into the night with drinking and conversation—all the while urging them to break away from other groups, keep their arrangement secret and not to trust other activists.”

This treatment was brainwashing—or, as it is sometimes termed, coercive persuasion. The new social environment Azir created meets several of the conditions psychologist Margaret Singer associates with such thought-reform in her book Cults in Our Midst: Azir separated the alleged conspirators from their support networks by suggesting outsiders couldn’t be trusted (a tactic Schulte provocatively describes as using “security culture against activists”), controlled their time by providing them with long days of work, and kept them unaware they were being manipulated by presenting himself as a friend and mentor. According to Gupta, friends described Stafford and Baxter as “highly impressionable,” and Azir took advantage of their vulnerability. Sociologist Richard Ofshe (quoted in Brainwash by Dominic Streatfeild) explains that people subjected to such manipulation “make bad decisions because they find themselves in situations that are built to get them to make those decisions.”

In addition to controlling their social environment, Azir manipulated the group physiologically to make them more suggestible. Fatigue obviously helped, and marijuana may have as well: Researchers in the 1970s found that “the drug caused an increase in suggestibility similar to that produced by the induction of hypnosis.” Similarly, the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse’s 1972 report, “Marijuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding,” stated that “cannabis intoxication produces a heightened suggestibility.” I don’t know if this phenomenon has been exploited by the FBI before. According to John Marks’ classic The Search for the “Manchurian Candidate,” though, the Office of Strategic Services used cannabis as a truth drug during World War II. The CIA, its successor agency, later experimented more extensively.

It is not clear whether Azir decided to brainwash the alleged conspirators himself or was instructed to do so by his FBI handlers, particularly since the agency denies telling him to hire them for construction work. If Azir provided the group with drugs without FBI authorization, though, his illegal activity would represent egregious loss of control over an informant; according to guidelines from 2006, informants may distribute controlled substances only with written authorization from both the Special Agent in Charge and a Chief Federal Prosecutor.

At least one of the Cleveland 5 resisted Azir’s attempt to recruit him: On April 29, according to Taylor’s affidavit, “Stevens advised he did not want to be part of the project, but still wanted to work on [Azir’s] houses. [Azir] told Wright to have Stevens call him,” and apparently persuaded him to participate.

That the alleged conspirators required such persuasion undermines the FBI’s claim that they are dangerous criminals. Specifically, it demonstrates that they were not predisposed to commit the crime, and thus that the case against them constitutes entrapment even under the narrow definition prevailing in case law.

Two disclaimers: First, this essay represents a historian’s analysis, not legal advice, and certainly not the opinions of the Cleveland 5 or their lawyers. Second, the Cleveland 5 include friends of friends of mine. As Alex Pareene writes of this case, “Someday all Americans, regardless of creed or color, will have their circle of friends secretly infiltrated by a paid informant.”