Did the FBI drive the Whitmer kidnapping plot?

Michigan Office of the Governor via AP, File

Last October, we learned of the FBI’s success in breaking up a plot hatched by right-wing militia members which would have involved kidnapping Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, blowing up a bridge and all manner of other dangerous schemes. It was a rather terrifying story, but at least the would-be perpetrators were stopped and brought to justice, so all’s well that ends well, right? Maybe, but now it’s sounds as if there might have been more to the story than we were told at first. Or perhaps more correctly, there may have been less to the story.

Buzzfeed has published a deep dive into the FBI’s account of the plot and how it was broken up, but the account of the men accused of planning it is considerably different. The group of militia members included one Iraq War veteran, a member of a biker gang from Wisconsin, and a guy who had experience with plastic explosives. They were all there when the gang took a trip to scope out Whitmer’s summer cabin and examine a nearby bridge they planned to blow up. But what the rest of the group didn’t know was that two of those three were wearing a wire for the FBI and the third was an undercover agent.

For six months, the Iraq War vet had been wearing a wire, gathering hundreds of hours of recordings. He wasn’t the only one. A biker who had traveled from Wisconsin to join the group was another informant. The man who’d advised them on where to put the explosives — and offered to get them as much as the task would require — was an undercover FBI agent. So was a man in one of the other cars who said little and went by the name Mark.

Just over three weeks later, federal and state agents swooped in and arrested more than a dozen men accused of participating in what a federal prosecutor called a “deeply disturbing” criminal conspiracy hatched over months in secret meetings, on encrypted chats, and in paramilitary-style training exercises. Seven of the men who had driven to Birch Lake that night would end up in jail…

The defendants, for their part, see it very differently. They say they were set up.

It’s not in the least unusual to hear suspects trying to deflect blame in an effort to get themselves out of trouble, so that’s certainly still possible here. But the story the men tell and the recordings made by the FBI are enough to give me pause. While it’s clear that the men who were arrested were, at a minimum, willing to join in on discussions and even planning sessions and field trips involving a plot to kidnap the governor, were they really the masterminds?

The explosives expert was the undercover FBI agent. He was the one who figured out where to plant the explosive and offered to obtain as much as the group wanted. Would there even have been a plan to blow up the bridge without him? The Iraq War veteran is heard barking at the other members about not hanging around unless they were “down with the thought of kidnapping.” It almost sounds as if he had to talk some of them into it. A government informant from Wisconsin was the person who traveled around the country and introduced various militia members to each other, sometimes paying their travel costs. Many of the eventual members had never met each other before this. There were fully a dozen informants and undercover agents involved every step of the way.

When you put all of that together, you are forced to consider the question that Buzzfeed is asking. Without all of those agents and government informants holding people’s hands and guiding their steps, would there even have been a conspiracy without them? The defendants are saying no. They claim that the whole idea of kidnapping Whitmer never rose above the level of fantasy, though they freely admit going to paramilitary training sessions together and engaging in anti-government conversations and online chats.

Can the FBI prove that it was one of the defendants who first brought up the idea of kidnapping and/or blowing up the bridge and asked for help? Or did one of the government actors suggest it and then bring the others along for the ride? If it’s the latter, convictions may be very difficult to obtain. Of course, as I already indicated, they could be making most of this up just to save their skins. But this report certainly casts the entire plot in a different light.