An FBI Special Agent impersonated a representative of a real, legal anti health care reform group in order to positively identify a Washington man who allegedly left a series of anonymous death threats on the office voicemail of Sen. Patti Murray (D-Wash). The agent called up Charles Alan Wilson claiming to be a representative of the group Patients United Now. FBI spokesman Fred Gutt told me that the FBI doesn't normally impersonate members of real, active groups without getting the group's permission first. However, this time agents assumed that Patients United Now was defunct because the telephone number on the group's website was disconnected. The FBI didn't contact PUN's parent group, Americans United For Prosperity, Gutt said. You can read my whole story at AlterNet.
On the one hand, it's satisfying to hear that a notorious astroturf group was itself astroturfed to catch a potentially dangerous suspect. Wilson told the agent he was packing heat and "wouldn't blink" if confronted. He has a registered .38 revolver and a concealed carry permit. So, we should all be glad this guy is off the street and charged with threatening a public official.
On the other hand, it strains credulity to think that the FBI just assumed Patients United Now was defunct without contacting its parent organization. The PUN website they got the number from clearly identifies the group as a project of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation--one of the most visible and well-funded opponents of health reform in the country. The FBI spokesman admitted to me that investigators probably should have been more persistent in trying to contact AFP.
The mere fact that contact info on a website is out of date is not a good enough reason to assume an organization is defunct. It's disturbing that the FBI would charge ahead on that basis. Secret agents shouldn't go around impersonating members of real, legal, non-violent groups without first getting permission. Clearly, the feds felt they had to act quickly to protect the senator. Still, what happened in the investigation is a troubling detour from the FBI's normal procedure of getting prior permission.