Conservatives are new targets of 'SWAT-ing'
Prominent conservative bloggers are seeing a rise in hoax calls made to police that draw SWAT teams to their doors
By Juana Summers
Conservative bloggers are the new targets of a series of "SWAT-ing" attacks — a decade-old hoax used to draw a SWAT team to the door of a political enemy.
It's a bizarre series of events that's consuming prominent conservative web sites, pitting conservative writers against a former federal convict — or his backers — who says he isn't even familiar with SWAT-ing: an elaborate practical joke in which SWAT teams are falsely sent to someone's home after a violent crime is reported. Those behind the SWAT-ing often mask their actual phone numbers, making the calls appear to originate from within the victim's home.
Beginning in July 2011, prominent conservative bloggers like Erick Erickson of Redstate.com and Patrick Frey of Patterico's Pontifications say that police began receiving the prank phone calls that triggered their actions. A short time afterwards, SWAT teams were on their doorsteps.
"They were pointing guns at me," Frey said of Los Angeles county sheriff's deputies that surrounded his home, banging on his door just after midnight on July 1, 2011. Frey is also an L.A. County deputy district attorney, but is certain he was swatted because of his blogging and not because of his job.
"They put handcuffs on me, they were screaming questions at me like, 'Is anybody inside? Are they alive? I was telling them, 'Yeah, my family is inside sleeping. My wife is upstairs. My children are upstairs in their bedrooms,'" Frey told POLITICO.
Now, Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss — who counts Erickson as a constituent — has gotten involved, writing a letter to the Justice Department asking it to "determine whether any federal laws may have been violated."
"The use of SWAT-ting as a harassment tool is apparently not new, but its use as a tool for targeting political speech appears to be a more recent development," Chambliss writes. "The emerging pattern is both disturbing and dangerous."
And dozens of members of Congress have followed suit, writing a letter, posted on Redstate, to Attorney General Eric Holder, calling on him to investigate the SWAT-ing of conservative bloggers.
"Differences of opinion should enrich our lives, not divide us," the letter says. "Each American has the right to freely express his or her ideas and should not be subject to fear tactics like SWAT-ing, which run counter to the liberty that forms the bedrock of our great nation. These crimes are not to be tolerated and necessitate thorough examination at every level."
But the man some publicly allege is to blame says he's the victim of online harassment and a "smear campaign" — a product of the bloggers' opposing political views and his criminal past.
Bret Kimberlin, nicknamed the "Speedway Bomber," was convicted in 1978 for a series of eight bombings in Speedway, Ind., and sent to federal prison. He was released in 2001, and now runs the Velvet Revolution, a coalition of liberal activists, and the non-profit Justice through Music.
Now, despite any proof that he is linked to the attacks, some bloggers allege that Kimberlin — or his backers — is responsible for the SWAT-ing, which they say took place after copious blog posts were written about his past and progressive politics. Kimberlin has denied any involvement.
And indeed, in a CNN interview on June 8, Erickson said that he didn't think Kimberlin was responsible.
"I don't think that it's him," Erickson said, referring to Kimberlin, adding that he believes it was "someone I guess who likes [Kimberlin]" and is part of his "fan club."
Erickson later posted the audio of the call that sparked the SWAT-ing of his home. On the call, a person called the Bibb County Sheriff's Department saying that he had shot his wife and would "shoot someone else soon."
The bloggers say that the mysterious attacks began shortly after their posts critical of Kimberlin and his allies appeared.
"Why target me? Well, I first wrote about Brett Kimberlin in October 2010, after getting a call from Andrew Breitbart," Frey wrote, referring to the late conservative blogger. "Andrew told me that his site was going to publish a post about a domestic terrorist named Brett Kimberlin. The story sounded interesting and I published a post about Kimberlin shortly after the Breitbart post...was published. The next day, Kimberlin threatened to sue me."
Frey said the incident at his home eight months later didn't totally take him by surprise.
"I had heard from a person that it had happened to a week earlier that he had been pulled out of his house at gunpoint because someone had called and said he'd killed his wife," Frey said. "So I actually said to the deputies — which I think caught them by surprise — ' I think I know what might be going on here. Let me guess, did somebody say that I killed my wife?'"
That was last summer. Over Memorial Day weekend, Erickson wrote on RedState that he was targeted by a similar scheme in his Macon, Ga. home.
"Tonight, my family was sitting around the kitchen table eating dinner when sheriff's deputies pulled up in the driveway. Someone called 911 from my address claiming there had been an accidental shooting," Erickson wrote on RedState. "It wasn't nearly the trauma that Patterico suffered, but I guess the Erickson household is on somebody's radar."
An FBI spokesman who often deals with similar cases said he was familiar with the Los Angeles SWAT-ing of Frey's home, but couldn't comment specifically as it was still under investigation. A spokesman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's department did not respond to requests for comment.
SWAT-ing — which has been around since the early 2000s — is typically a retaliatory act, said Kevin Kolbye, acting special agent in charge of the Dallas FBI office, which has been at the forefront of probing SWAT-ing cases.
"They're usually retaliatory in nature to harass or terrorize the intended party. It's really kind of similar to the old hoax bomb threat," Kolbye said. "But in a SWAT-ing, you're masking or hiding the victim's phone number and causing a SWAT response by stating that they've murdered someone in the house or they have hostages in the house."
"There's been hundreds of SWAT-ing instances where SWAT teams have come up to innocent third parties," he said. "It's putting innocent people at risk. It's just a matter of time that we believe someone could get hurt."
Like Erickson and Frey, a host of other conservative bloggers have reported intimidation, threats and online harassment sometime after blogging about Kimberlin.
One conservative blogger said both he and his wife lost their jobs after being targeted. Another said he and his family fled their Maryland home out of fear for their safety. Still others claim they're the target of malicious messages on Twitter, Facebook and their own blogs from people sympathetic to Kimberlin.
But Kimberlin said he's never been involved with SWAT-ing conservative bloggers. In fact, he told POLITICO, bloggers have been "smearing" him, making it tough for him to do his job and leading to threats and harassment of his teenage daughter.
"I didn't even know what 'SWAT-ing' was. I thought it was like, 'do you want me to swat something across the face," Kimberlin said recently. "...It's part of a right-wing smear on me. It's the swift boating of Brett Kimberlin."
Kimberlin was held at an Oklahoma federal prison for drug conspiracy and his involvement in the Speedway bombings, and sentenced to 50 years. He also caused a political stir at the end of the 1988 presidential campaign when he said that he sold marijuana to Dan Quayle in 1972, a charge the former vice president repeatedly denied.
Kimberlin says the continuing online harassment by conservative bloggers has put his life at risk — the same claim some bloggers have made against him.
"They make it seem like I'm some kind of monster and here I am just doing my job, going to work every day, raising my family and being a husband," he said.
He says he's been the target of dozens of death threats recently, and compared the bloggers' effort to a 'lynch mob,' calling on Erickson — who is a CNN contributor — to go on air and rebut the claims.
"I'd never even heard of Erick Erickson before. I don't know him, but from what I've read, he has somewhat of a reputation. For him to allow these allegations to go on without saying there's no evidence that Brett Kimberlin's involved in anything — that's irresponsible."
The conservative bloggers are fuming at the treatment of their friends — and striking back, raising money for those that say they lost their day jobs because of the attacks, and ensuring the story doesn't get lost in the churn of the 24-hour news cycle.
Blogger Lee Stranahan organized an "Everybody Blog about Brett Kimberlin Day," urging fellow conservative bloggers to put to pen — or keyboard — what they consider to be the facts about Kimberlin.
"The only effective way to fight Brett Kimberlin is for as many people to research and write about him as possible," Stranahan wrote. "...This foolishness has gone on enough."
Stranahan, and others personally put up an $8,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and convictions of the person behind the "SWAT-ings." The National Bloggers Club, an association of conservative bloggers, launched a fundraising drive to help those who have chosen to relocate or who say they have lost their jobs.
The cause has even drawn the attention of one-time presidential hopeful Herman Cain, who tweeted last week that Robert Stacy McCain — the conservative blogger who writes at The Other McCain — says he had to abandon his Maryland home to continue writing.
"Appropriate precautions have been taken to ensure the safety of my family and others who might be endangered if Kimberlin resorts to violence to accomplish his malicious purposes," McCain wrote on his blog."At the urging of concerned friends, we have vacated our former residence and I am now blogging from a secret location which Kimberlin will be unable to discover or reach."
McCain, who asked for financial assistance on his blog, said he and his family will now be embarking on the "The Mother of All Road Trips."
Conservative bloggers believe that speaking out doesn't come without a cost.
"Each and every person who signed on to 'Everybody Blog about Brett Kimberlin' knew the risks that were involved,"conservative commentator Michelle Malkin told POLITICO. "We knew who these people are and what they're capable of doing. Despite that, we decided that it was more important to stand up and say something about it... I couldn't just stay silent. What good is the First Amendment if you only exercise it if you're safe?"
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