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We Shouldn’t Trust the FBI’s Narrative on the Gretchen Whitmer Kidnapping Scheme

The details of the kidnapping plot targeting Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer are disturbing and show the real danger of the far right. But given the FBI’s very recent history of using undercover informants as provocateurs to push people into planning “terror plots” that otherwise would have never happened, we should examine its narrative closely.

There’s little reason to believe cheering on agencies like the FBI will help fix the root causes of far-right terrorism. (Photo: FBI.gov)

From its primordial days to its most recent history, the FBI has always mixed legitimate law enforcement activities with political repression, overwhelmingly targeted at the political Left. And while it may not seem like it at first glance, that fact is vitally important to keep in mind when we think about the most recent blockbuster case the bureau is involved in.

Since last week, the headlines have been lit up by a shocking story out of Michigan: the FBI had foiled a plot hatched by anti-lockdown protesters and right-wing militia members to kidnap and try for “treason” Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, who one of the ringleaders called a “tyrant bitch.”

According to a federal affidavit and court testimony, the plot involved surveilling Whitmer’s vacation home in Western Michigan and the surrounding area, procuring explosives and tactical gear to fight off police, taking part in armed training exercises, and even possibly blowing up a nearby bridge. The alleged plotters discussed using a fake pizza delivery to kidnap Whitmer, leaving Whitmer on a boat in the middle of Lake Michigan, and even kidnapping Virginia governor Ralph Northam, one of the “tyrants” who, they believed, were abusing their power to order statewide lockdowns in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer in Detroit in 2019. (Photo: Julia Pickett)

The plot, lurid with detail, is shocking precisely because it rings so true. Since at least as far back as the Bill Clinton era, domestic terrorism targeting people and not property has been almost exclusively the domain of the political right, with law-enforcement agencies themselves tending to cite anti-government extremism as a bigger terrorist threat than the Islamic extremism with which the political establishment this century has been so obsessed. A range of establishment entities, from the hawkish think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to the FBI itself, recognize that far-right terrorism is the country’s most imminent terrorist threat, a fact they’ve found it hard to get the Trump White House to take seriously, given that the president sees such extremists as core supporters.

Yet this is precisely what makes the matter, and this case specifically, so tricky. Far-right terrorism is a serious danger that must be eliminated, but at the same time, the press and the Left in particular need to be cautious not to adopt the mindset of the “war on terror” that has been so ruinous to so many. And there are more than enough warning signs that, with this case, the FBI may be up to its old Obama-era tricks, helping manufacture the very terrorist plots it ends up thwarting and publicizing.

“It Is All About Entrapment”

During the Obama era, the FBI built up something of a reputation: the Bureau would publicize its foiling of ambitious, frightening terror plots hatched by young, often poor Muslim men thanks to its use of paid informants and undercover agents. It would receive kudos for stopping the conspiracies, while reminding the public about the ever-present threat of terrorism in their lives. And, inevitably, details would emerge that the plot could never have come to fruition, or in some cases even be hatched in the first place, without FBI personnel guiding, cajoling, and supplying the alleged terrorists every step of the way.

There was, for instance, twenty-two-year-old Derrick Shareef, a broke, carless, and homeless Muslim video game store clerk taken in by a former crack dealer on the FBI’s payroll, whose job was to encourage the hapless Shareef’s fantasies of first “casing” then blowing up a target in Rockford, Illinois. The bureau’s man didn’t just have to nudge Shareef into trying to act on his boasts, however: Shareef’s dire finances meant that when it came time to buy weapons from an arms dealer — in reality an undercover FBI agent introduced to Shareef by his new “friend” — the informant had to broker a deal for the penniless Shareef to trade stereo speakers for grenades because he couldn’t afford the $100 price tag.

Or take twenty-five-year-old Robert Lorenzo Hester Jr, indicted in 2017 for planning to bomb a Kansas City train station, in a plot whose every detail — time, place, and type of attack — was devised by his two ISIS-member accomplices. Unfortunately for Hester, those ISIS members turned out to be undercover FBI agents who had contacted Hester to devise the plot after seeing some of his extremist social media posts.

Like Shareef, Hester was poor; at one meeting with what he thought were ISIS agents, he brought his kids because he didn’t have childcare. And like Shareef, the FBI not only provided him weapons and gave him the list of bomb-making supplies he needed to buy, but they gave him the $20 he needed to afford them, with Hester later promising the agents he would buy ammunition once he got his tax refund. At one point, an agent threatened Hester with a knife and reminded him that he knew where his family lived. This year, Hester was sentenced to nineteen years in prison.

Perhaps most infamous was the case of eighteen-year-old Peyton Pruitt, a developmentally disabled teen with the mental acuity level of an eight-year-old. Pruitt had never lived on his own or held a job, couldn’t do simple tasks like tying his shoes or buttoning his shirt, and waived his right to an attorney under FBI questioning because he wasn’t sure what a lawyer was. Despite the fact that he was failing to keep up with basic hygiene by the time the FBI got to him, the bureau accused him of soliciting material support for a terrorist act, after Pruitt sent agents posing as Islamic terrorists bomb-making recipes and suggestions for possible targets over the internet.

It’s hard to overstate how common this pattern is. The FBI has done it again and again, often by targeting vulnerable Muslim men who were poor or mentally ill, sometimes luring the often incompetent would-be terrorists with promises of large sums of money. According to the Center on National Security at Fordham Law, the use of informants or undercover agents leapt from 33 percent of ISIS-related cases in 2014 to 83 percent in 2017. By 2016, a third of those cases involved suspects who were living with their parents at the time. As one former FBI informant later said: “The way the FBI conducts their operations, it is all about entrapment . . . There is no real hunt. It’s fixed.”

It may well be that a similar thing has now happened again with the Whitmer kidnapping plot, only with a different type of would-be terrorist. That’s certainly the case defense lawyers are making, claiming the plot was just “big talk between crackpots” and “military wannabes” who were “never going to do anything.” They argue that “one of the most active leaders [of the plot] was your informant,” that the government has selectively provided bits and pieces of recordings of conversations as evidence, and that they will examine the exact role of FBI agents and informants in possibly encouraging the plot as the case winds its way through court.

Of course, this is what defense lawyers do: they advocate aggressively for their clients. And the plotters went a bit beyond just talk, actually surveilling Whitmer’s vacation home and the surrounding area. But while it’s too early to say definitively, what we know so far about the case does bear many of the hallmarks of the FBI’s targeting of Muslims under Bush and Obama.

According to the FBI’s affidavit, the bureau made heavy use of informants and undercover agents in the case. At least four took part — specifically, two informants and two undercover agents, on whose evidence gathering the criminal complaint was based on — though it’s implied that some unspecific number of additional personnel were involved.

And, as with earlier, Muslim-targeting cases, the FBI appears to have been integral to the plotters’ ability to carry out the scheme. The affidavit notes that an undercover agent told the ringleader it would cost $4,000 to procure explosives. Four of the accused planned to meet with another undercover agent posing as an explosives expert to pay for them and, they were told, to get some excess tactical gear the agent had the day they were arrested. In court, Richard Trask, the agent who authored the affidavit, said he didn’t know how much money the defendants had on them when they were put in handcuffs, aside from the $275 held by Adam Fox, pegged by Trask as the ringleader.

Even the profile of Fox is not unlike those of earlier targets like Shareef and Hester. Fox was reportedly struggling with money and had been on the brink of homelessness after his girlfriend kicked him out of her house, before being taken in by his friend and employer, who let him stay temporarily in the basement of his vacuum store. It was there in that cramped storage space, cluttered with boxes and spare vacuum parts, where Fox was living with his two dogs and meager possessions, that he at one point held a meeting to allegedly plan out the kidnapping. (We shouldn’t be too quick to assume this applies to all of the accused, however — one has been described by his lawyer as from a decent family and with a good job making $28 an hour).

Unfortunately, rather than applying some measured skepticism and caution to the story, the press has largely treated it with sensationalistic bombast. Fox has been cast as the “mastermind” of a plot even prosecutors have said in court was foiled “because they’re amateurs.” Local media have publicized “new and shocking details” in headlines, while reputable outlets like the New York Times and CNN talk about a “failed domestic terrorism plot to overthrow Michigan’s state government,” giving the story a salaciously ominous framing, with a healthy dollop of the most threatening quotes from the FBI complaint. Even the left-leaning Guardian, which has written critically and copiously about FBI entrapment and “fake terror plots” in earlier cases, has treated this story without skepticism.

In fact, just this weekend, the US Attorney’s Office released to a CNN affiliate a set of videos, photos, and text messages from the plotters, in an effort clearly aimed at influencing public perception. The videos show the group filming themselves training with rifles, and features one of the accused telling the camera that “if this shit goes down, okay, if this whole thing, you know, starts to happen, I’m telling you what, dude, I’m taking out as many of those motherfuckers as I can.” If evidence and court testimony does wind up proving the defense’s case right, with strategic releases like this, the government will have succeeded in defining the case in the public imagination anyway.

In any case, it’s important to remember that this kind of ugly and threatening rhetoric (“I just wanna make the world glow, dude. I’m not even fuckin’ kidding”; “Snatch and grab, man. Grab the fuckin’ governor. Just grab the bitch”; “Knock on the door, and when she answers it, just cap her”) is common in cases where we do definitively know the FBI was integral to engineering the plot.

Derrick Shareef said he wanted to “smoke a judge” or bomb a mall, that he “like[d] the holiday season” for the timing of an attack, and that he was “down to live for the cause and die for the cause, man.” Upon Robert Hester’s sentencing this year, the DoJ trumpeted his quotes calling for “hitting” the government “hard,” suggesting targets like “oil production,” “Wall Street,” and “military bases” (“[a]ny government building in DC would get attention of everyone”), and that he wanted a “global jihad.” Even in the case of Peyton Pruitt, the disabled teen, investigators pointed out that he had told the FBI “he would be happy” if terrorist acts were committed, and suggested targets like police stations, “big events” like football games, and CIA headquarters.

The point isn’t that we know for sure the Whitmer kidnapping plot falls into this genre of FBI operation. The point is that there’s enough in the meager details we’ve gotten about it so far that we shouldn’t assume it doesn’t.

Why Should We Care?

No matter how hapless they might be, aspiring right-wing terrorists are hardly sympathetic, particularly for leftists and liberals. But you don’t need to have the slightest sympathy with this group of men or their cause to understand why it’s important to treat the story with caution.

It’s not just the principle involved, though of course the Left should not be cheering on potential efforts by law enforcement to entrap the poor, alienated, or foolish and delusional into crimes. It’s also a matter of not allowing officials and security services to exaggerate the threat of terrorism for their own purposes.

Since the “war on terror” began, we’ve seen how these sources have successfully stirred up fear of terrorism to increase their own repressive powers, powers that are then often turned on the population at large and used to control dissent. The September 11 attacks were used by the Bush administration to ram through the privacy-shredding Patriot Act, to create a secret infrastructure of global torture and mass surveillance, and to set up sprawling government bodies like the Department of Homeland Security, all of which were in short order aimed at law-abiding US citizens — including just this past summer, against racial justice protesters in cities like Portland.

Federal officers form a police line in front of the Mark O. Hatfield US Courthouse in the early hours of July 30, 2020, in Portland, Oregon. (Nathan Howard / Getty Images)

In a similar way, it was the “underwear bomber” of 2009 who prompted the use of even more invasive treatment of millions of innocent passengers at airports to this day. It was the 2010 DC “metro bomber” who prompted the controversial use of random bag searches in the city’s train system, all because of a plot that, once again, had been planned and carried out with the help of the FBI. And the bureau went into a virtual public relations war with Apple in the wake of the 2015 San Bernardino shooting, trying to force the company to build security flaws into their products to allow law enforcement to more easily snoop through accused criminals’ phones. (Somewhat ominously, references to “encrypted chat” messages are strewn throughout the FBI’s affidavit in the Whitmer kidnapping case.)

Though we’re used to governments using the specter of Muslim terrorists for this purpose, in reality, they use whatever is most frightening in the public imagination at any given point in time. In the mid-1990s, it was incidents of far-right extremism like the Oklahoma City bombing and the siege at Ruby Ridge that prompted that decade’s government assault on civil liberties, in the form of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which, as legal scholar Lincoln Caplan later put it, “gutted the federal writ of habeas corpus” and slashed state courts’ rate of reversal of death penalty decisions by 40 percent two decades on. With an estimated 4 percent of death row inmates having been wrongfully convicted, who knows how many innocent people went to their deaths because of it?

Now that the pendulum has swung back and it’s far-right terrorists that loom largest in the public imagination, this threat is being cited again for a new and dangerous bipartisan idea: passing a domestic terrorism law. Democratic lawmakers called for white supremacist organizations to be designated domestic terrorism groups after 2019’s shooting in El Paso, Texas, the same crime cited by leading national security Democrat Adam Schiff upon introducing his version of such a bill, and it’s an idea that found its way into both Joe Biden’s campaign platform and, ultimately, the official 2020 Democratic Party platform. Another entity that called for this idea in the wake of that attack? The FBI Agents Association, which had similarly cited far-right terrorism to call for domestic terror legislation two years earlier, in the wake of Charlottesville.

But such a law would be a civil liberties nightmare. Civil liberties advocates like the ACLU have correctly warned that “people of color and other marginalized communities have long been targeted under domestic terrorism authorities for unfair and discriminatory surveillance, investigations, and prosecutions,” with even a Justice Department lawyer telling Congress it would be “highly problematic,” and it’s African-American and Muslim organizations — some of those most at risk from far-right terror — who have expressed concerns about the law.

One domestic terror bill introduced in 2019 mandates a jail sentence of up to twenty-five years for property damage. Recall, too, that the use of informants to entrap radical groups has been used by the FBI to go after anti-capitalist and green groups, calling them “eco-terrorists.” Or, to get a more visceral sense of how a law like this could be misused, recall the widespread alarm with which Donald Trump and his attorney general’s threats to designate “antifa” a terrorist organization were met, and recall that the only reason they couldn’t was because this kind of law didn’t exist.

“Not only has the global war on terror been a disaster in terms of human, strategic, and financial costs, it has contributed to the corrosion of our own politics in ways that are becoming much clearer, especially amid the protests that arose in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the absurdly militarized police response to them,” Bernie Sanders’s former foreign policy adviser Matt Duss recently wrote. “Minority communities have faced the brunt of this, as heavily equipped police forces patrol their neighborhoods like occupying armies, using surplus tactical equipment.”

So it’s up to not just the press, but the Left, too, to treat this case with the skepticism that all such FBI-involved terror plots deserve. Officials have already reacted to it less than responsibly, with Michigan attorney general Dana Nessel claiming the Whitmer kidnapping plot was carried out by white supremacists, even though all evidence points to the fact that the ideologies of both the plotters and the Wolverine Watchmen militia focused overwhelmingly on anti-government, anti-law-enforcement sentiments instead of racist ones. One of the accused plotters even went to a Black Lives Matter protest in June, telling a local paper he was upset about the police murder of George Floyd.

A Cure Worse Than the Disease

Just as with the Islamic terrorism that took center stage in political discourse during the past two decades, it’s vital to keep the threat of terrorism in perspective.

Just as in the Bush and Obama eras, “terrorism experts” are once again being credulously quoted, stressing that far-right terror “is by far the most serious danger in the US on many levels,” and calling for the FBI to devote more of its resources at domestic terrorism. But even as right-wing extremists are undoubtedly the largest and fastest-growing source of terrorism, terrorism itself, while viscerally scary and shocking, remains a statistically minor threat to life, whatever its political roots.

According to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, 3,658 Americans died in all types of terrorist attacks worldwide between 1995 and 2016, with 2,902 of those occurring on September 11, 2001 (by its count). Taking away that “Black Swan” event, that’s thirty-six American deaths a year in the entire globe over that twenty-one-year period.

Drilling down to specifically right-wing terror, the numbers are even smaller. According to the CSIS, deaths from right-wing terror between 1994 and 2020 have totaled 335, or around fourteen per year, while a 2020 New America study puts the far-right terrorist death toll since 2001 at 114, or six per year. The DHS’s own recent analysis finds that over 2018 and 2019, forty-eight people were killed, thirty-nine of them at the hands of white supremacists. It’s important to note that, according to the DHS, 2019 was the most lethal year since 1995 for domestic terrorism.

Not only are these numbers dwarfed by the hundreds of thousands of Americans who die every year from ordinary causes (e.g., heart disease, diabetes, suicide) or are killed by animals (1,610 between 2008 and 2015), they are also vastly outmatched by the number of Americans killed by the police (7,666 people between 2013 and 2019, with more than a thousand killed in 2019 alone). While far-right terrorism should by no means be simply ignored, curbing the power and impunity of American law enforcement will be a far more effective way to save innocent lives than adding to that power in the hope of fighting domestic terror.

A far-right demonstrator during protests in Berkeley, California, in May, which saw right-wing demonstrators attack leftists in the streets. Adam Cohn / Flickr

This is not to play down the threat of right-wing terrorism, any more than liberal and left-wing warnings during the Bush and Obama eras that Americans were more likely to be crushed by furniture or drown in their bathtubs than be killed in terrorist attacks were aimed at insulting Americans’ justified fear and anger in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Instead, putting it into perspective can help us find the appropriate policy response and avoid handing law-enforcement and security agencies potentially repressive powers that can be used against the most vulnerable, something agencies like the FBI have a habit of inflating terrorist threats to do.

Just as leftists and liberals understand that more and stronger police aren’t a solution to crime, or that more bombs and wars won’t stop foreign terrorism, there’s little reason to believe cheering on agencies like the FBI will help fix the root causes of far-right terrorism. There is more than enough detail in the Whitmer kidnapping story to justify approaching the story with skepticism until we learn more. And there is more than enough in the FBI’s history for us to know that whatever specialized tactics are used against fringe right-wing groups today, they won’t stay limited to that part of the political spectrum for long.