This week included interesting revelations about the FBI’s case against the handful of people charged with plotting to kidnap the governor of Michigan. Of 14 people indicted, five (or more) were working as informants for the FBI.
As Revolver has noted, the five people who seem to be the FBI informants were also the people who seemed to have all the kidnapping ideas and access to all the equipment needed for a paramilitary assault on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s vacation home. At one point, the leadership of the conspiracy met, and three of the five people in that discussion were FBI.
I worked in counterterrorism for more than 10 years, so I understand all the reasons a federal agent would argue this isn’t technically entrapment. The people didn’t know they were surrounded by feds and continued to take overt actions that advanced the fantasy conspiracy, and that’s illegal. Okay, fine.
But this got me thinking about some of the old ISIS and al-Qaeda cases I reviewed when I was helping prosecute terrorists who actually killed people. I remember giving my buddies in the FBI a hard time when they would “win” a domestic terror case and all they had was a kook who had been running his mouth on the internet.
“Your case is weak,” I would tell them, “And why are you wearing a suit? We’re going to be reading in the SCIF again today. It’s the same things we’ve been doing all year.”
At the risk of sounding like Tom Nichols some old man sitting on a porch going on about how hard things were in my day, I’m going to say this: There was a time the FBI caught and prosecuted really dangerous people.
Remember Ramzi Yousef, the guy who bombed the World Trade Center? Now, that’s a real terrorist. He could build bombs and teach others to build them. He would work independently in foreign countries for months on end. He could quietly travel and move money around the world without anyone noticing.
When the FBI secured his conviction, he was airlifted out of the courthouse in lower Manhattan. The agents who caught him were in the helicopter with him. They could easily see the World Trade Center, and one of the agents said to Yousef, “You failed. They’re still standing.”
“I just needed a little more money,” Yousef said.
That’s a real terrorist.
Terrorism, as it turns out, is hard. Recruiting isn’t easy, and finding the right people is difficult. A person who is willing to train, travel, keep secrets, and face a very high chance of dying is not statically all that common.
Getting access to explosives, and knowing how to use them, is technically complicated. You can practice, but if you make a mistake, you’ll blow yourself up. Oh, there’s bomb-making manuals on the internet? Sure, there are. Feel free to try those out. I dare you.
Shooting isn’t all that easy either, and training someone to gun fight—really, seriously gun fight—takes expertise, and time, and a place where you can shoot for hundreds of hours without anyone noticing. Do you know where you could do something like that? Who would teach you how to shoot like that, or fight with knives, or drive a car so you could get away? How would you find that person? How would you vet him to make sure he’s not FBI?
You wouldn’t. Unless you’re a mercenary, you’ve trained with a militia in Africa or Asia, or you’re a SWAT officer or an elite soldier, you wouldn’t know those things, and you wouldn’t know people who know those things. Frankly, most of the people who know those things are dedicated patriots. They’re the good people, and the bad guys won’t share that information easily. They’re secretive and expensive.
So the FBI does the heavy lifting in these cases. The suspects start out by talking about jihad or revolution or overthrowing the government, and someone in their chat group decides he should tell the FBI.
The Intercept did some marvelous reporting on this in 2017. They noted, quite correctly, that in hundreds and hundreds of cases the FBI and Department of Justice had brought to trial there were no victims of violence, and the FBI informants were the primary driving characters in the fictional worlds the suspects had been caught up in.
In case after case, it’s the FBI that creates the illusion of the ability to do harm. There are no bombs, no ability to launch an attack. There is no group ready to meet and support them, no weapons smugglers, or expert marksmen. There is only the anger of a lonely person screaming into the void of the internet, and the only one who answers that screaming is the FBI.
So what’s interesting about the revelations from this week is not that the FBI is up to some new, clever gambit to combat the wily insurrectionists in our midst. What is interesting is they are right back to pulling the same tricks they used on wannabe al-Qaeda and ISIS dopes for the last 15 years.
Why is the assistant director of the FBI’s Washington Field Office—Anthony D’Antuono, who is heading the investigation into the January 6 riot at the capitol and was previously in charge of the Detroit Field Office—doing these things? He’s never known another way. He had been an FBI agent only three years on 9/11, and all that time he was a forensic accountant. This is how the FBI has run these kinds of investigations his entire career.
The problem is not that we’re going to find out that the January 6 case is going to be full of FBI agents and informants, just like the Whitmer kidnapping case. The problem is we are starting to understand this is standard procedure for counterterrorism. This is a 20-year-old charade the FBI brass has been pulling.
The FBI didn’t let the crisis of 9/11 go to waste—they seized on it to dramatically increase their funding and power. They suddenly took the “lead” on terrorism all over the United States. Before 9/11, they had treated terrorism as an ugly footnote. The people on the USS Cole bombing case remember working out of basement offices, part-time, as al-Qaeda grew more powerful, better funded, and trained hundreds of people in Afghanistan.
Once the FBI was in charge, there were lots of new GS-15 positions, offices to fill, and money to spend—and boy, did they. In 2001, the FBI wanted $1.5 billion for counterterrorism and only got $500 million. In 2002, they asked for $200 million more. In 2003, they asked for $285 more. And so on. The total FBI budget was about $3.5 billion in 2002. It’s more than $10 billion today.
Now, 20 years later, with Osama bin Laden dead and the United States leaving Afghanistan, do we think those GS-15 positions, or those Joint Terrorism Task Forces, or the Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force, are going to go away? No. They need work to justify those budgets, and America needs a new enemy.
The difference is that the government has begun to use the tools that were developed to fight a credible foreign threat now to fight against the political opponents of Democrats.