Michigan Governor Kidnapping Case: Hardened Terrorists or FBI Dupes? | Michigan

Four members of the Wolverine Watchmen, a group in Michigan that the government accuses of plotting to kidnap and kill Governor Gretchen Whitmer, are – depending on who you believe – members of a dangerous paramilitary or a group of good old boys who talk a lot air.

Adam Fox, Brandon Caserta, Barry Croft Jr and Daniel Harris were charged in October 2020 with conspiracy to abduct Whitmer from his vacation home in Northern Michigan. Their motive, Grand Rapids prosecutors say, was anger over Democratic Covid-19 restrictions and their plan has become a symbol of rising far-right violence and the threat it poses to American democracy. .

At the time the FBI arrested the men, prosecutors argued in court that they intended to acquire a bomb to blow up a bridge near Whitmer’s home to obstruct police. Jurors, they said, would see social media posts and hear secretly recorded conversations, highly inflammatory language and details of a plan to take out a “bully”.

When they were arrested, the case seemed like a slam dunk. But as more evidence came to light and the trial began, a different narrative emerged. Far from being a devoted group of putschists, their lawyers claim, the Wolverine Watchmen are unfortunate victims of the FBI’s trap who have been tricked by paid informants into committing crimes they otherwise would not have contemplated.

The FBI, according to defense documents, deployed at least 12 informants, along with several undercover agents. “There was no plan, there was no deal and no kidnapping,” defense attorney Joshua Blanchard said last week.

This is not a totally outlandish claim. The defense argument about the FBI trap has a long history. In the post-9/11 era, when US internal security agencies focused on the existence of Muslim extremist conspiracies, several prosecutions, including against the Newburgh Four, relied on informants actively promoting a conspiracy. before handing over the would-be perpetrators to the government to be tried for conspiracy.

Civil rights activists and experts have argued that the FBI has frequently overstepped its bounds, essentially inciting people to participate in conspiracies and lock people up for crimes they would never have committed without the intervention of the police. law enforcement.

The defendants, left to right: Barry Croft, Daniel Harris, Adam Fox and Brandon Caserta. Photography: AP

These counterterrorism techniques, reapplied to the threat of white nationalist radicalization that Joe Biden has repeatedly said is the “deadliest threat” to the United States, will play a part in how the Wolverine Watchmen trial unfolds. This raised the question: were the Wolverines more dupes than devoted terrorists?

“Counterterrorism tactics evolved because there wasn’t a lot of international terrorism on American soil,” said Mike German, author of Disrupt, Discredit and Divide: How the FBI Damages Democracy. “But there’s always pressure to do business and that’s caused the FBI to adopt this methodology of fabricating terrorist plots.”

German, who served 16 years as an FBI special agent and is now attached to the Brennan Center for Justice and NYU Law School, says the tactics have migrated to far-right groups, but not necessarily with great success. The 2010 Hutaree Militia case, in which nine members of a Michigan group infiltrated by the FBI were accused of conspiring to kill a police officer, ended in an acquittal.

“When these tactics started, it was easy to put the public on the side of the FBI just by making allegations,” German said, recalling the case of the Liberty City Seven – an extremist Muslim plot to blow up Chicago’s Sears Tower. which ended after three years. trial, in five convictions.

“The problem is that they fabricate crimes and it’s not a law enforcement agency’s job – to make themselves look good by solving the crimes they create – and it there is no legitimate government purpose to fabricate a conspiracy,” he said.

Another problem, according to German, is that there is more white supremacist/far-right activity in the United States than there ever was Muslim extremism. But the federal government does not maintain a database of white extremist violence, grouping all extremisms – white nationalists, environmentalists – into one category under the Hate Crimes Statistics Act (1990) and the National Strategy. to combat domestic terrorism, announced last year.

And that, German points out, left the government without accurate data on what happened and in a position to try to predict and prevent what happened. could happen. “The problem is to start talking and get to violence, but not the other way around,” he said.

Men carry guns near the steps of the State Capital Building in Lansing, Michigan, in April 2020 during a protest against Governor Gretchen Whitmer's orders to keep people at home and businesses locked down during the coronavirus outbreak.
Men carry guns near the steps of the State Capital Building in Lansing, Michigan, in April 2020 during a protest against Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s orders to keep people at home and businesses locked down during the coronavirus outbreak. Photography: Paul Sancya/AP

In the Wolverine Watchmen case, the four defendants are accused of taking deliberate steps towards violence, including secret messages, gun drills and an overnight drive through northern Michigan to scout the house. vacation from Whitmer. Two of the six men initially arrested, Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks, have pleaded guilty and will appear as government witnesses.

But defense lawyers say one of the men on trial, Barry Croft, was lured to militia meetings and shooting practice by ‘Big Dan’, an informant with a long criminal history who was paid 54 $000 by the FBI.

Big Dan’s handler was Jayson Chambers, an FBI agent who sought to establish a security consulting business that included “online infiltration techniques” and had been involved in investigating Muslim “conspiracies” involving incitement.

Another informant, Stephen Robeson, pleaded for various crimes. Another government witness, FBI agent Robert Trask, was fired after beating his wife after a swingers party. Another was charged with perjury.

Yet with anti-government extremism in the Upper Midwest comes a toll that includes Terry Nichols, a participant in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, who was originally from Michigan. Fourteen men from the state have been charged in connection with the January 6 uprising.

In 2020, hundreds of protesters, some armed, some driving Humvees, attempted to enter the floor of the Michigan state capitol’s legislative chamber as lawmakers debated Whitmer’s request to expand Covid emergency powers. Some have compared Whitmer to Hitler.

“I’m not surprised this is coming out of Michigan because of her history and because Governor Whitmer has drawn a lot of negative attention to her lockdown procedures,” said Amy Cooter, a sociologist at Vanderbilt University and author of Problems Predicting Extremist Violence.

Cooter suggests the alleged plot against Whitmer was not just about the Covid restrictions, but also because she is a woman and a Democrat. In Cooter’s experience, groups that engage in extremist rhetoric rarely translate that into action.

“The problem is there’s always potential for this to evolve into something more,” adds Cooter. “So when a specific person is targeted, I think we have to take it seriously.”

A Confederate flag hangs from a porch of a property in Munith, Michigan, in October 2020, where law enforcement officials said suspects charged in a plot to kidnap Gretchen Whitmer met to s training and making plans.
A Confederate flag hangs from a porch of a property in Munith, Michigan, in October 2020, where law enforcement officials said suspects charged in a plot to kidnap Gretchen Whitmer met to s training and making plans. Photography: Nicole Hester/AP

Nils Kessler, the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the current case, drew explicit parallels between the plan and the Jan. 6 attack. “As the Capitol Riots demonstrated, an incomplete conspiracy can turn into a serious substantive offense on short notice,” he wrote in a court filing.

Regardless of the jury’s findings in the Wolverine case, Cooter predicts, right-wing groups “are going to assume that they were created and [it] could galvanize some to go further.

JoEllen Vinyard, a history professor at Eastern Michigan University, who notes that today’s white nationalists have a background in racist groups like the KKK, says groups like the Wolverine Watchmen “see themselves as defending the democracy and, in many cases, saving the country from its rulers”. .

Michigan, she said, gets a lot of attention because groups there periodically seem better organized, based on their leadership. “It’s hard to know the FBI’s role in all of this, but these guys in particular don’t seem like the type to be able to exercise leadership,” she said.

She added: “There’s a lot of turmoil in this country that we haven’t always recognized, and people have different reasons at different times. They were encouraged, of course, by Donald Trump. He doesn’t didn’t create, but he made those people feel that they were right and right in their actions.

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