Federal prosecutors inadvertently disclosed likely classified material to Proud Boys defense attorneys, Justice Department officials indicated Thursday, a snafu that has derailed — for at least a full day — the most important trial to emerge from the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
The admission in court by a top DOJ official came in connection with testimony from FBI Special Agent Nicole Miller, one of the lead investigators in the Proud Boys case. Miller has already spent two days testifying about the Proud Boys’ Jan. 6 activities — their march to the Capitol from the Washington Monument and key role in the breaches that led to the broader attack.
As part of her testimony, prosecutors shared with defense lawyers a set of internal FBI messages that Miller had sent and received from colleagues related to the case — a standard production of evidence in criminal cases. To compile those exchanges, FBI headquarters sent Miller a spreadsheet of her messages — culled from a computer network classified at the “secret” level. Miller then reviewed the messages and filtered them to ensure only relevant, unclassified exchanges were included.
Miller sent her final list to prosecutors, who then packaged the messages into an Excel spreadsheet that they provided to defense lawyers. But unbeknownst to them, the messages Miller initially filtered out — including some that DOJ officials say are likely classified — were left in the final document as “hidden” rows in the Excel spreadsheet. Defense counsel stumbled upon them and began grilling Miller about them in front of jurors in the case.
Overnight, Justice Department attorneys told the defense team they were concerned there had been a “spill” of classified information in the hidden messages they accessed. And on Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Tim Kelly paused the trial — already in its third month — to determine how to handle the error.
It’s the latest hiccup in a seditious conspiracy trial that has been marked by excruciating delays and extended legal disputes. Prosecutors say Proud Boys chair Enrique Tarrio and four leaders of the group schemed to prevent the transfer of power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden. The group, according to the Justice Department, split into teams that helped engineer the breach of police lines and, ultimately, the building itself, when one of the defendants, Dominic Pezzola, smashed a Senate-wing window with a stolen riot shield.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jocelyn Ballantine, who is supervising the case for the Justice Department, acknowledged the likely “spill” of classified information Thursday morning. She raised particular concerns about a message sent to Miller by another agent who works on covert activity — and who she said did not work on the Proud Boys case — describing a supervisor’s order to “destroy 338 items of evidence.”
“That could impact a classified equity,” Ballantine said.
Defense lawyers cried foul, though, noting that the government’s claims of “classified” material arrived just as the defense sounded the alarm about the content of some of the inadvertently disclosed messages. While Miller testified Wednesday she had produced about “25 rows” of messages, defense lawyers said there were thousands of rows of hidden messages that included contents they contended were directly relevant to their case.
Some of the messages appeared to reveal that FBI agents accessed contacts between defendant Zachary Rehl and his attorney, which led Miller to tell a colleague she thought Rehl would take his case to trial. In another message, an FBI agent tells Miller, “You need to go into that CHS report you just put and edit out that I was present.” After defense attorneys began to press Miller about the attorney-client messages on Wednesday afternoon, prosecutors objected, and Kelly halted the trial to permit the parties to debate the matter.
After hearing arguments Thursday, Kelly ordered defense attorneys to refrain from reviewing or disseminating the messages until the FBI was able to conduct a classification review, a process that Ballantine said could likely be completed by the end of the day Thursday.
The flare-up comes as prosecutors are nearing the end of their case against the Proud Boys. They’ve laid out evidence showing that Tarrio and his allies developed a sense of existential dread about a Biden presidency and quickly embraced Trump’s claims of fraud in the days and weeks after his defeat in the 2020 election. As Jan. 6 neared, the group’s leaders grew increasingly disillusioned with police — who they accused of insufficiently acting to investigate a man who stabbed several Proud Boys at a December 2020 rally in Washington. And they set up a new chapter, dubbed the “Ministry of Self Defense,” that included men they believed would follow orders.
A week before Jan. 6, Tarrio received a document from a girlfriend titled “1776 Returns” that sketched out a plan to occupy federal buildings in order to derail and delay Congress’ proceedings to certify the 2020 election.
Defense attorneys have contended that the group is little more than a glorified drinking club that had no actual plan to either storm the Capitol or prevent Biden from taking office. Miller’s testimony portrayed the group’s march through Washington on Jan. 6 as an organized and concerted advance toward the Capitol that pinpointed weaknesses in Capitol Police defenses and exploited them to help facilitate the breach of the Capitol.
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