The knock-and-talk drill is powerful, requires no intrusive technology and no warrant. It goes like this: FBI agents, sometimes with local police partners, knock on doors of people of interest and ask to interview them. The mere appearance of courteous but unsmiling and obviously well-informed badge-carriers, armed with notebooks and a long list of very specific questions, is often enough to chill someone from carrying out a half-baked scheme.
“FBI agents and [Joint Terrorism] Task Force [police] officers routinely conduct these interviews with people who may have information or involvement in activity,” O’Connor told SpyTalk. “The effort is to let the interviewee know the FBI is aware they have potential involvement or information. This may slow the person’s potential involvement and most importantly, after building a relationship with the person, may produce information which will stop potential violence.”
“These interviews are related to [uncovering] potential criminal violence,” he stressed, “and not First Amendment-protected activity. The FBI in no way is looking to chill a citizen’s rights to peaceful protest or free speech.”
This sort of tactic sounds great when they are showing up at the doors of right-wing nutbars who are convinced that the Lizard People run the world and talk about blowing stuff up to help usher in Trump’s 1000-year reign.
It seems less great if they start knocking on the doors of people with Black Lives Matter signs in their front yards, or who have posted about defunding the police.
This sort of stuff always comes with trade-offs. Personally, I think I am okay with the FBI and police using these tactics as long as there is oversight, followed by consequences if they use them improperly.
What stories like this one definitely tell me, though, is that we do not need stronger domestic terrorism laws. The FBI and police have plenty of power—we do not need to give them more. The January 6 attack on the US Capitol did not happen because law enforcement lacks the tools to track and apprehend domestic extremists; it happened because the threat posed by white supremacists, anti-government lunatics, and gun fetishists in this country has been actively ignored for years.