The FBI has been paying closer attention to “sovereign citizen” extremists around the country out of concerns that they will react violently when they interact with government officials. But if you dig deeper, the FBI’s attention raises questions about why focus on this group as opposed to others.
But first, who are sovereign citizens? They’re a mixed bag. Some reject their U.S. citizenship and don’t recognize government authority, like laws and taxes. But others don’t, and are more concerned with private property. The website Sovereigncitizens.org explains:
Our goal is to educate and inform the American public about the very real threat to the United States of America as we have known it – coming from many different institutions that make up our government and policy infrastructure. We hope to teach those who wish to remain free how to recognize this threat and disarm it in their communities.
We do NOT endorse non-payment of taxes or violence to achieve these changes. We do NOT endorse giving up a social security number and we do NOT endorse violence against the police or the government. [Emphasis added]
In 2009, the FBI started paying closer attention to the movement, which previously had been grouped with the militia movements in the bureau’s domestic counterterrorism operations. Many people who claim to be followers of this movement are involved in white collar crimes like tax evasion schemes and making fraudulent documents, the FBI said.
In fact, a Reuters report sheds more light on what a majority of this group has been up to recently: “Legal convictions of such extremists, mostly for white-collar crimes such as fraud, have increased from 10 in 2009 to 18 each in 2010 and 2011, FBI agents said.” That’s an increase of eight crimes.
That’s in stark contrast to, say, the Occupy Wall Street group. Compared to the 18 arrests in 2010 and 2011 for the sovereign citizens, the number of Occupy arrests by just December stood, according to some, at 5,214. There have been many more since the start of the year. On top of that, the Occupiers have also displayed a violent hate of police.
Still, the FBI has its sights set on the movement.
“We started to notice a heightened potential for violence,” said Stuart McArthur, deputy assistant director of the FBI’s counterterrorism division.
Speaking to reporters at the FBI’s national headquarters, McArthur said that while sovereign citizen ideologies are protected by the constitution, there have been instances when extremist members have turned to violence.
“The thing about generally sovereign citizen extremists is that because their ideology just intrinsically deals with the rejection, complete rejection, of the constitutional authority of the United States or any other government for that matter … that when you have an encounter with law enforcement, we have seen that has a potential to go high and right very fast,” McArthur said.
McArthur used the 2010 example of when a man and his son shot and killed two police officers during a traffic stop in West Memphis, Ark. The man was a sovereign citizen who previously had only been on the FBI’s radar for white collar scams, he said.
Since that day, the father of one of the slain officers — Brandon Paudert — has been touring the country speaking out against the group. In fact, one local paper hat covered one of Bob Paudert’s speeches said he characterizes the group as “radical Christian terrorists:”
Paudert said there is little difference between the sovereigns, who he deemed radical Christian terrorists, and radical Islamic terrorists.
“These people combine their beliefs with religion,” he said. “They believe it’s OK to kill a police officer, not to pay taxes, to give your mortgage up, to not register your vehicle. And then they’ll quote scriptures from the Bible. That is a dangerous combination, and most law enforcement officers are still unaware of the dangers.”
“60 Minutes” covered the story, and the group, earlier this year:
Since the enhanced focus on the group starting in 2009, the FBI created a national strategy to address the issue, which includes briefing state and local law enforcement around the country on signs to look for and how to prevent violence.
Casey Carty, a supervisor in the bureau’s domestic terrorism section that leads the sovereign citizen extremist program, said that people in the sovereign citizen movement do not tend to gravitate to one specific part of the country and reside in nearly every state. Carty also said that age, gender and race are not consistent among the movement’s followers.
All this isn’t to say that there aren’t individuals within the movement that should raise some red flags. But the question remains: why would the government go out of its way to note it’s monitoring these individuals — which admittedly seem to be preoccupied mostly with white collar crimes (18 of them most recently) — and yet so many government officials have gone out of their way to praise the Occupy movement.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.