‘Watching the Watchmen’: The FBI’s Hidden Role in MI Gov Kidnapping Plot

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American 'Patriot' Rally, Lansing, MI, 2020. Photo by John Rothwell via Flickr

The FBI informants who halted the plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last year played a significant role in the federal investigation and, at times, helped orchestrate the plot itself. The findings by BuzzFeed News have inflamed an already heated case that’s become a stand-in for the country’s ideological rifts.

While some Americans are applauding the FBI for cracking down on domestic terrorism, others consider federal involvement a government overreach — and a “flashpoint for deep state conspiracy theories,” Buzzfeed says in its report entitled “Watching the Watchmen.”

The news outlet called the Michigan kidnapping case a “major test for the Biden Administration’s commitment to fighting domestic terrorism—and a crucible for the fierce ideological divisions pulling the country apart.”

The news outlet examined the activities of 12 confidential government informants who assisted the FBI’s investigation of Whitmer’s planned kidnapping, finding that some informants played a larger part than previously understood.

Informants organized meetings where many of the alleged plotters first met, paid for some hotel rooms to incentivize people to come, and offered to purchase explosives, raising questions as to whether there would have been a conspiracy without them.

The prosecution’s case illustrates the irreconcilable ideological differences that define the country: citing thousands of text messages, recordings and social media posts, the prosecution argues participants took concrete steps toward kidnapping or killing elected officials.

But the 14 original defendants, all but one of whom pleaded not guilty, maintain they never intended to harm anyone. They argue they were targeted for their political views in a premeditated, government-led campaign to undermine the “Patriot movement.”

An umbrella term for extremist, anti-government militias, adherents to the “Patriot movement” argue the government has undermined the Second Amendment and violated the Constitution.

To the defendants, the recordings and text messages the government amassed are constitutionally protected speech, not proof of a criminal conspiracy.

One defendant formally accused the government of entrapment, arguing that the FBI assembled the plotters, spurred the group’s anti-government feelings and gave its members military-style training. A lawyer for a different defendant filed a motion last week that included texts sent by an FBI agent directing an informant to draw specific people into the conspiracy.

In court, the government has adopted a very different argument, maintaining that the alleged kidnapping plot was a precursor to the Jan. 6 insurrection. Attorney General Merrick Garland outlined in a June speech the government’s approach to addressing domestic terrorism, which is focused on “violence, not ideology.”

“First are efforts to understand and share information regarding the full range of domestic terrorism threats,” he said.

“Second are efforts to prevent domestic terrorists from successfully recruiting, inciting, and mobilizing Americans to violence. Third are efforts to deter and disrupt domestic terrorist activity before it yields violence. And finally, the long-term issues that contribute to domestic terrorism in our country must be addressed to ensure that this threat diminishes over generations to come.”

Scrutiny of the investigation’s operations, as well as the case’s divisiveness in court, has generated a renewed set of concerns. For one, the FBI’s reliance on paid, confidential informants is a source of long-time controversy.

Since the 1950s, the bureau has employed informants to infiltrate dissident groups and spy on targeted individuals, including the Black Panthers, the Ku Klux Klan, and Martin Luther King Jr.

For paramilitary groups, though, a different concern is more significant. Citing the government’s link between the kidnapping plot and the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, many extremists say the insurrection in Washington, D.C. was a “black op” engineered by the FBI — an unsubstantiated claim with dangerous implications.

“To some, the FBI’s infiltration of the innermost circle of armed anti-government groups is a model for how to successfully forestall dangerous acts of domestic terrorism,”  BuzzFeed News reporters Ken Bensinger and Jessica Garrison write.

“But for others, it’s an example of precisely the kind of outrageous government overreach that radicalizes people in the first place, and, increasingly, a flashpoint for deep state conspiracy theories.”

Eva Herscowitz is a TCR Justice Reporting intern.

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