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Investigation Lays Out Plot To Kidnap Michigan's Governor

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

On April 30 of last year, armed militiamen entered the Michigan State Capitol Building looking for Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Yelling) Open the door.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Let us in. Let us in. Let us in. Let us in.

CHANG: The group known as the Wolverine Watchmen had been allowed inside by state police, along with dozens of others protesting the state's COVID lockdown orders. They made their way to an office that they thought was Whitmer's and they began pounding on the door. Whitmer was not inside, and the occupation came to an end without any violence.

But months later, in early October, more than a dozen people, including members of the Watchmen, were arrested on domestic terrorism charges, accused of plotting to kidnap the governor of Michigan. A new investigation from BuzzFeed News lays out, in stark detail, the events leading up to those arrests. And the authors raise serious questions about the FBI's use of undercover agents and informants in the development of the plot. Reporters Jessica Garrison and Ken Bensinger join us now.

Welcome.

KEN BENSINGER: Thank you, Ailsa.

JESSICA GARRISON: Thank you so much for having us.

CHANG: First, tell us more about this group, the Watchmen - like, when were they formed, and how would they describe themselves?

BENSINGER: The Wolverine Watchmen were founded in late 2019 by a 25-year-old guy named Joe Morrison. At the beginning, it was a small group, included his father-in-law and some personal friends of his that mostly sort of shared memes and ranted about the police and how the police was always after them. But over time, the group became larger, actively recruited and became more reliant on encrypted messaging to share their message, which increasingly was critical of the federal government and state government, particularly in Michigan when the COVID lockdown orders began happening.

CHANG: Right. I mean, this group reacted pretty strongly to those COVID lockdown orders. What have you learned about how the goals of this group, the Watchmen, shifted in the spring of 2020?

GARRISON: You know, I think that it is absolutely true that a lot of these folks were really upset by Michigan's lockdown orders, which were some of the strictest in the nation. And they decided to express that fury in part by showing up at the Capitol with guns. And I think the pictures of that - you know, I remember before I ever heard of any of this seeing those pictures and, you know, they were kind of startling and went around the world.

CHANG: I want to talk about a man named Dan who ended up joining this group in the spring of 2020. You decided to withhold his last name. Tell me a little bit about Dan.

BENSINGER: Dan is an Army veteran. He served in Iraq and came back to civilian life in Michigan, but he continued to be a firearms enthusiast and a Second Amendment enthusiast. And he was surfing Facebook looking for people who were interested like him in firearms and also in training. He was looking for people he could talk to about guns and who he could train with. And Facebook's recommendation engine suggested he check out a group called the Wolverine Watchmen.

CHANG: Right. He thought it was just a training group at the time, but then he realized it wasn't quite that. So what did he do at that point?

GARRISON: Well, he gets into this group, and pretty soon, he's in the main chat. And in the main chat, he sees discussions about, you know, downloaded, like, a hunting app that can be used to hunt police officers. And he's like, oh, my gosh. So what he does is he goes to a friend of his who is a police officer at a local police department and shows him his phone. And at that point, the friend goes to the FBI and connects Dan to the FBI. And Dan really thinks he's just going to tell the FBI about this and go on with his life. But when he meets with the FBI, the agents have a different idea for him and they suggest that he actually get deeper into the group but with the FBI watching every step of the way.

CHANG: Right. Dan ends up wearing a wire for months, right?

GARRISON: Dan ends up wearing a wire for months. And Dan also, because he is a trained soldier, winds up second in command of this group.

CHANG: OK. Well, one thing that Dan does eventually is he brings in a man named Adam Fox. He actually calls Fox from an FBI office as agents are listening in and he invites Fox to come meet the Watchmen. What did you find out through your reporting about why law enforcement encouraged this, like, wanted someone like Adam Fox into this whole arrangement?

BENSINGER: Adam Fox is a guy in his late 30s who is a weightlifter and a person who's been very interested in so-called militia type groups for a long time. He's been a member of several militia groups, which he got thrown out of mostly because of anger issues or he would get in fights with other members. But he seemed a bit in search of a mission and a team to belong to. He reaches out to the Watchmen because a third party suggested to him that there might be someone he could train with and might have similar ideas. And when he does, Dan, the FBI informant, very quickly steps forward, kind of seizes the bull by the horns, gets him on recorded phone calls, talking about him spending time with the Watchmen, meeting them and training with them. We don't have specific evidence showing what they told Dan to do with regards to Adam Fox. We do see at least three or four other names where the FBI was explicitly telling Dan, hey, why don't you take this guy along, too? Why don't you bring that guy and invite him, too?

CHANG: OK. I now want to fast-forward a little bit and jump to another remarkable scene in this whole story, and that's in early September. Members of the group have driven to northern Michigan in the middle of the night. What are they doing there?

GARRISON: Well, they're trying to find Governor Gretchen Whitmer's vacation home because, you know, the plan has evolved that they're going to try to seize her from that vacation home and, you know, maybe put her on a boat in Lake Michigan, maybe take her to Wisconsin and put her on trial for being a tyrant. But it's sort of a dry run to go up and take a look at her vacation home.

CHANG: And then a few weeks later, 13 people are arrested for plotting to kidnap Whitmer. And at that point, the FBI had - what? - at least a dozen informants and several undercover agents working on this case. I'm just curious, is that typical for an investigation like this?

BENSINGER: FBI has been using informants, you know, basically since it was founded over a century ago.

CHANG: Sure.

BENSINGER: But it moved in the late 1950s and '60s into this kind of what we now think of as domestic-terrorism oriented kind of informant use, where it was almost intelligence gathering and infiltrating groups with people who were supposed to provide information about, quote-unquote, "dissident activity" - very controversial program called COINTELPRO was used to spy on everyone from the KKK to Martin Luther King. And despite a lot of negative publicity, they still use those techniques. So in a domestic terrorism case, it's almost the rule that you're going to see at least a couple informants somewhere within the case.

CHANG: Well, now some of these defendants in this case are claiming that they were set up and one is actually trying to raise the defense of entrapment. What do you think the likelihood is that that defense, entrapment, will work here?

GARRISON: Well, entrapment is often a matter for a jury, right? It's very rare for a case to get tossed because you've argued entrapment. And I think juries are notoriously difficult to predict, so I'm not going to try.

CHANG: OK. That said, I'm curious, do you think that the plot would have gotten so far, as far as it did without the FBI's involvement?

BENSINGER: It's a great question. What we do know is that these are a bunch of people who are angry and had lots of ideas. But we don't really know if all sort of the different ingredients of that final stew would have ever come together without the government. To what degree is the fact that the FBI's paying for transportation for people, paying for housing, in some cases, even paying for food, how much is that pushing things way further down the line they would have ever happened?

I suspect the FBI is going to make the argument that it never - was never the first person to say we should kidnap the governor. But the defendants are going to say, you put us together; you made this all happen. And we just had fantasies and you were - we were leaning on us. That's going to be the defense.

CHANG: Such a fascinating case. Ken Bensinger and Jessica Garrison of BuzzFeed's investigative team, thank you so much for your reporting.

GARRISON: Thank you so much.

BENSINGER: It was a great pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF AXEL BOMAN'S "BARCELONA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.