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How a Radical Leftist Became the FBI's BFF

To many on the left, Brandon Darby was a hero. To federal agents consumed with busting anarchist terror cells, he was the perfect snitch.

But Common Ground's approach soon began to grate on Darby. He bristled at its consensus-based decision making, its interminable debates over things like whether serving meat to locals was serving oppression. He idolized rugged, iconoclastic populists like Che Guevara—so, in early 2006, he jumped at a chance to go to Venezuela to solicit money for Katrina victims.

Darby was deeply impressed with what he saw, until a state oil exec asked him to go to Colombia and meet with FARC, the communist guerrilla group. "They said they wanted to help me start a guerrilla movement in the swamps of Louisiana," he told "This American Life" reporter Michael May. "And I was like, 'I don't think so.'" It turned out armed revolution wasn't really his thing.David Mckay: Couresy Loteria FilmsDavid McKay. Courtesy Loteria Films

Darby's former friends dispute the Venezuela story as they dispute much that he says. They accuse him of grandstanding, being combative, and even spying on his rivals. In his short-lived tenure as Common Ground's interim director, Darby drove out 30 volunteer coordinators and replaced them with a small band of loyalists. "He could only see what's in it for him," Crow told me. For example, Darby preempted a planned police-harassment hot line by making flyers asking victims to call his personal phone number.

The flyers led to a meeting between Darby and Major John Bryson, the New Orleans cop in charge of the Ninth Ward. In time, Bryson became a supporter of Common Ground, and Darby believed that they shared a common dream of rebuilding the city. But he was less and less sure about his peers. "I'm like, 'Oh my God, I've replicated every system that I fought against,'" he recalls. "It was fucking bizarre."

By mid-2007, Darby had left the group and become preoccupied with the conflict in Lebanon. Before long, Darby says, he was approached in Austin by a Lebanese-born schoolteacher, Riad Hamad, for help with a vague plan to launder money into the Palestinian territories. Hamad also spoke about smuggling bombs into Israel, he claims.

Darby says he discouraged Hamad at first, and then tipped off Bryson, who put him in touch with the FBI. "I talked," he told me. "And it was the fucking weirdest thing." He knew his friends would hate him for what he'd done. (The FBI raided Hamad's home, and discovered nothing incriminating; he was found dead in Austin's Lady Bird Lake two months later—an apparent suicide.)

McKay and Crowder first encountered Darby in March 2008 at Austin's Monkey Wrench Books during a recruitment drive for the St. Paul protests. Later, in a scene re-created in Better This World, they met at a café to talk strategy. "I stated that I wasn't interested in being a part of a group if we were going to sit and talk too much," Darby emailed his FBI handlers. "I stated that I was gonna shut that fucker down."

"My biggest impression from that meeting was that Brandon really dominated it," fellow activist James Clark told the filmmakers. Darby's FBI email continued: "I stated that they all looked like they ate too much tofu and that they should eat beef so that they could put on muscle mass. I stated that they weren't going to be able to fight anybody until they did so." At one point Darby took everyone out to a parking lot and threw Clark to the ground. Clark interpreted it as Darby sending the message: "Look at me, I'm badass. You can be just like me." (Darby insists that this never happened.)

"The reality is, when we woke up the next day, neither one of us wanted to use" the Molotovs, Crowder told me.

When the Austin activists arrived in St. Paul, police, acting on a Darby tip, broke open the group's trailer and confiscated the sawed-off traffic barrels they'd planned to use as shields against riot police. They soon learned of similar raids all over town. "It started to feel like Darby hadn't amped these things up, and it really was as crazy and intense as he had told us it was going to be," Crowder says. Feeling that Darby's tough talk should be "in some ways, a guide of behavior," they went to Walmart to buy Molotov supplies.

"The reality is, when we woke up the next day, neither one of us wanted to use them," Crowder told me. They stored the firebombs in a basement and left for the convention center, where Crowder was swept up in a mass arrest. Darby and McKay later talked about possibly lobbing the Molotovs on a police parking lot early the next morning, though by 2:30 a.m. McKay was having serious doubts. "I'm just not feeling the vibe on the street," he texted Darby.

"You butt head," Darby shot back. "Text me when you can." He texted his friend repeatedly over the next hour, until well after McKay had turned in. At 5 a.m., police broke into McKay's room and found him in bed. He was scheduled to fly home to Austin two hours later.

Bradley Crowder: Courtesy Loteria FilmsBradley Crowder. Courtesy Loteria FilmsThe feds ultimately convicted the pair for making the Molotov cocktails, but they didn't have enough evidence of intent to use them. Crowder, who pleaded guilty rather than risk trial, and a heavier sentence, got two years. McKay, who was offered seven years if he pleaded guilty, opted for a trial, arguing on the stand that Darby told him to make the Molotovs, a claim he recanted after learning that Crowder had given a conflicting account. McKay is now serving out the last of his four years in federal prison.

At South Austin's Strange Brew coffeehouse, Darby shows up to meet me on a chromed-out Yamaha with flames on the side. We sit out back, where he can chain-smoke his American Spirits. Darby is through being a leftist radical. Indeed, he's now an enthusiastic small-government conservative. He loves Sarah Palin. He opposes welfare and national health care. "The majority of things could be handled by people and by communities," he explains. Climate change is "a bandwagon" and the EPA should be "strongly limited." Abortion shouldn't be a federal issue.

He sounds a bit like his new friend, Andrew Breitbart, who made his name producing sting videos targeting NPR, ACORN, Planned Parenthood, and others. About a year after McKay and Crowder went to jail, Breitbart called Darby wanting to know why he wasn't defending himself against the left's misrepresentations. "They don't print what I say," Darby said. Breitbart offered him a regular forum on his website, BigGovernment.com. Darby now socializes with Breitbart at his Los Angeles home and is among his staunchest defenders. (Breitbart's takedown of ACORN, he says, was "completely fucking fair.")

"No matter what I say, most people on the left are going to believe what reinforces their own narrative," Darby says. "And I've quit giving a shit."

Entrapment? Darby scoffs at the suggestion. He pulls up his shirt, showing me his chest hair and tattoos, as though his macho physique had somehow seduced Crowder and McKay into mixing their firebombs. "No matter what I say, most people on the left are going to believe what reinforces their own narrative," he says. "And I've quit giving a shit."

The fact is, Darby says, McKay and Crowder considered him a has-been. His tofu comment, he adds, was a jocular response after one of them had ribbed him for being fat. "I constantly felt the need to show that I was still worthy of being in their presence," he tells me. "They are complete fucking liars." As for those late-night texts to McKay, Darby insists he was just trying to dissuade him from using the Molotovs.

He still meets with FBI agents, he says, to eat barbecue and discuss his ideas for new investigations. But then, it's hard to know how much of what Darby says is true. For one, the FBI file of his former friend Scott Crow, which Crow obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request last year, suggests that Darby was talking with the FBI more than a year before he claims Bryson first put him in touch. Meanwhile, Crow and another activist, Karly Dixon, separately told me that Darby asked them, in the fall of 2006, to help him burn down an Austin bookstore affiliated with right-wing radio host Alex Jones. (Hayes, Darby's ex, says he told her of the idea too.) "The guy was trying to put me in prison," Crow says.

Such allegations, Darby claims, are simply part of a conspiracy to besmirch him and the FBI: "They get together, and they just figure out ways to attack." Believe whomever you want to believe, he says. "Either way, they walk away with scars—and so do I."

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