he FBI recently invited leaders of the fundamentalist church to the Quantico Marine base in Virginia to talk to FBI agents as part of the bureau's counterterrorism training program. But after four sessions this spring, the FBI canceled the arrangement amid criticism from inside the bureau, while church leaders claimed that they had been misled.
Timothy Phelps, a church leader and the youngest son of Fred Phelps, said he spoke to local law enforcement professionals at the FBI Academy at Quantico and then again to agents who had been in the bureau three years or less at an FBI facility in Manassass.
He said the program was designed to teach agents "how to stay measured when they are speaking with a witness or a suspect with whom they have a strong, visceral disagreement."
Phelps conceded that strong, visceral disagreement is one of the emotions Westboro inspires. And that's what he found in the classrooms he visited. Officials say there were about 50 local law enforcement officials and agents in each session, and they say Westboro wasn't paid for its participation. Phelps confirmed that no money exchanged hands.
Law enforcement officials who attended the session said it was focused on domestic terrorism. They were told that the FBI invited Westboro members to the class so police officers and agents could see extremists up close and understand what makes them tick.
The FBI claims the church group knew this. But Phelps said he had no idea he was part of a domestic terrorism curriculum.
Phelps said if the FBI lied to them about why they were there, he would not be surprised. "Law enforcement across this nation uses false information frequently with us," he said. But there were people at the FBI who were surprised — and angry — when they found out about the Westboro sessions.