Just as the investigation into the “terror attack” of January 6 was in full swing in the autumn of 2021, court proceedings in the alleged 2020 plot to kidnap of Governor Gretchen Whitmer began in Michigan.
When 13 men allegedly tied to militia groups were arrested on October 7 of this year on federal and state charges for planning to kidnap Whitmer from her Michigan vacation cottage, Team Biden and Whitmer herself made the most of the timely political gift. “There is a through line from President Trump’s dog whistles and tolerance of hate, vengeance, and lawlessness to plots such as this one,” Biden said in an October 9 statement. “He is giving oxygen to the bigotry and hate we see on the march in our country.”
In a press release announcing the arrest of six of the plotters on federal charges, the Justice Department detailed the elaborate plan. “This group used operational security measures, including communicating by encrypted messaging platforms. On two occasions, members of the alleged conspiracy conducted coordinated surveillance on the Governor’s vacation home . . . and discussed detonating explosive devices to divert police.” The wannabe kidnappers planned to use a taser gun on Whitmer then either abandon her in a boat on a nearby lake or transport her to Wisconsin to stand trial. “These alleged extremists undertook a plot to kidnap a sitting governor,” the assistant FBI special agent in charge said in the statement. “Whenever extremists move into the realm of actually planning violent acts, the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force stands ready to identify, disrupt, and dismantle their operations, preventing them from following through on those plans.”
Investigating—or Planning—the Plot?
But the Justice Department’s description failed to match reality as court documents and testimony would show. Far from the FBI thwarting the operation, the FBI itself enlisted participants, organized and funded training and surveillance trips, and used paid informants working with FBI agents to lure unsuspecting “militia” members into attempting to execute the plot.
The scheme centered around a group called the Wolverine Watchmen, an unknown “militia” group formed online in late 2019 by another man who faced state, not federal, charges related to the plot. (The man, Joseph Morrison, created a Facebook page for the new group four days after he was arrested on a weapons charge, which was pleaded down to a misdemeanor with time served—one day in jail.) It was essentially a small online group of malcontents, more smoke than fire.
An extensive exposé published in July 2021 by BuzzFeed News detailed how the plot went down and the close involvement of at least twelve FBI agents and informants. Contradicting the government’s early claims, the site’s investigative reporters concluded the following: “An examination of the case by BuzzFeed News also reveals that some of those informants, acting under the direction of the FBI, played a far larger role than has previously been reported,” Ken Bensinger and Jessica Garrison wrote on July 20. “Working in secret, they did more than just passively observe and report on the actions of the suspects. Instead, they had a hand in nearly every aspect of the alleged plot, starting with its inception. The extent of their involvement raises questions as to whether there would have even been a conspiracy without them.”
The insurrectionary plot had the government’s fingerprints all over it. Every man involved in the kidnapping scheme had an FBI handler. According to a filing by one defense lawyer, “the government has shared ID numbers linked to 12 confidential informants but, with one exception, has not provided background on how they were recruited, what payments they may have received from the FBI, where they are based, or what their names are.” The lead informant, known as “Big Dan,” was paid at least $54,000 by the FBI for seven months of work, a sum that included reimbursing him for a loss when he sold his home out of fear his identity would be revealed.
Special agent Jayson Chambers, while working the Whitmer case, also coaxed “Big Dan” to enlist another man in Virginia to concoct a plot to kill Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. Chambers made clear to “Big Dan” what he was supposed to convince “Frank,” his target, a disabled Vietnam veteran, to do. “The mission is to kill the governor specifically,” Chambers texted. He further instructed “Big Dan” to tell “Frank” how to build an explosive device, an approach similar to the one used in the Whitmer scheme.