There are many ways to undermine democracy. In the United States, one of the most persistent threats to democratic rights has been the hoarding of power by largely unaccountable security forces that, in a single-minded drive to protect what they define as national security, have tended to run roughshod over civil liberties and treat activists and dissidents as criminals.
It was the case in the early twentieth century, when the FBI rounded up radicals, foreigners, and draft-evaders. It was the case mid-century, when the COINTELPRO program harassed Matin Luther King Jr and other civil rights protesters. It was the case under George W. Bush, when a newly launched “war on terror” became an excuse to go after law-abiding Muslims and government critics. And it was the case just last year, as a panoply of federal agencies were used by a desperate president Trump to go after protesters, journalists, and immigration lawyers, to name a few.
All of this is particularly relevant in light of a major new investigation by Buzzfeed published last week, examining the details of last year’s highly publicized FBI thwarting of a plot by a Michigan militia to kidnap the state’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer. At the time, I made a basic point about the whole situation: we should be careful about simply accepting the FBI’s account of the events at face value, not least because the sparse details included in its affidavit called to mind an old and controversial Bureau practice. That would be the FBI’s use of informants and undercover agents to effectively manufacture their own terrorist plots — typically by entrapping down-on-their-luck or mentally unwell Muslim men — which they then foiled and publicized, thereby justifying more money, resources, and powers for the “war on terror.”
While at the time I cautioned we didn’t have enough information yet to make a definitive call either way, the extensive reporting done by Buzzfeed all but confirms this was the case. According to the outlet, FBI informants “had a hand in nearly every aspect of the alleged plot, starting with its inception,” from organizing and funding nationwide meetings where those involved in the eventual plot first met, to supplying, encouraging, and even helping lead the entire affair. Buzzfeed reporters Jessica Garrison and Ken Bensinger previously reported that the Bureau used a whopping twelve informants in the case, double the number of actual plotters charged.
One of those, known only as Dan, was paid nearly $55,000 by the FBI for seven months of work, during which time he became second-in-command of the whole operation. His handiwork included encouraging the plot’s chief, non-FBI ringleader — the literally basement-dwelling Adam Fox — in his increasingly unhinged fantasies, and using his sway to include Fox in meetings despite other militia members’ concerns about Fox’s stability. Dan’s FBI handlers, meanwhile, encouraged him to draw in as many people as possible into the plot, and provided the money he used to fund a national training exercise early on in the affair.
It should go without saying that none of this makes any of the individuals involved in the plot good guys, or any less noxious in their politics. This should be a basic point for anyone committed to basic democratic freedoms or opposed to mass incarceration: believing in due process isn’t supporting rape, murder, or other crimes; and defending the rights of the accused doesn’t necessarily mean you’d invite them over for dinner with the family. Or to use a closer analogy: sticking up for the civil liberties of accused Islamic terrorists doesn’t mean that you sympathized with their ideology or their alleged crimes.
But this news is significant beyond just the principle involved here. Even news outlets that were well aware of the FBI’s history of doing this exact thing with Islamic terrorist plots opted for sensationalistic coverage of the kidnapping scheme, uncritically reproducing the FBI’s preferred portrayal of the events. This plot was then, post-January 6, often cited together with the Capitol riot as a dramatic, visceral example of the growing threat of Far Right terrorism that required the failed and abuse-filled “war on terror” to be expanded to the home front.
Speaking of January 6, there remain serious questions about law enforcement agencies’ conduct on that day. The security and intelligence failure which was the only reason the “Stop the Steal” protest was able to get out of hand and charge into the Capitol still hasn’t been adequately explained. Besides contradictory testimony from officials about the failure of their response, we know the FBI and others warned the Capitol police in advance about the protests. We now also know there was at least one undercover agent among the rioters, on top of the fact that the leader of the Proud Boys — one of the far-right groups who took part in the incident — was a “prolific” law enforcement informant, in the words of his own lawyer, and that at least four Proud Boy leaders in total were feeding information to the Bureau since 2019, directly contradicting the FBI director’s sworn testimony earlier this year.
Why, given all this, did law enforcement fail so spectacularly to keep a mostly unarmed crowd of protesters out of the Capitol, particularly after the police’s militarized and heavy-handed response to anti-police brutality protests over the past six years? How were they taken by surprise when the entire event was planned in the open anyway? Why have law enforcement officials offered inconsistent, contradictory, and even misleading testimony? All good questions the national press has been largely uninterested in, obsessed instead with debunking overcooked claims that the FBI “organized” the riot.
None of this points to a deliberate conspiracy. But it certainly seems like the two principal events upon which a dangerous new domestic “war on terror” has been launched off of are, first, a kidnapping plot that only existed because the FBI made it happen, and second, a completely avoidable security failure by law enforcement that was asleep at the wheel. In other words, it points to a classic national security dynamic: agencies overzealously prosecuting national security threats, or royally screwing up, and instead of admitting to mistakes, using the incidents to justify more power and resources for themselves.
(Not that we should reflexively dismiss more sinister possibilities: after all, we just found out that as part of its pursuit of Julian Assange, the FBI stood by (or worse) as one of its informants carried out a cyberattack on the Icelandic government, which the Bureau used as a pretext to enter the country to go after the WikiLeaks founder.)
With the image of an archetypal terrorist shifting under Trump’s tenure as president, from dark-skinned Muslim men to burly white right-wing militiamen and racists, the broad left is currently in danger of letting its antipathy toward the this new face of terrorism put it in the position of facilitating an alarming concentration of police power and an eventual crackdown on political dissent. Post-January 6, far too many progressives who previously fretted about abuse of the criminal justice system suddenly turned into a mix of Rudy Giuliani and George W. Bush, calling for harsh prosecution of those who had committed only property damage on January 6, or even just walked around not doing very much. As Tom Cotton noted gleefully after the incident: “Some liberals appear to have shed their reservations about the use of force now that the mob carries different signs and chants different slogans.”
Left-wing lawmakers facilitated the passage of a bill funneling enormous money and resources to the Capitol police, which has now, alarmingly, been expanded into a national anti-terrorism police force, one that’s conveniently exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. After a disgraceful 2020 that saw public confidence in the police dip below 50 percent thanks to shocking, unabashed brutality and authoritarianism, the orgy of police propaganda that followed January 6 has now made them one of only three institutions that a majority of Americans still believe in. And prosecutors are trying to throw the book at entirely nonviolent January 6 protesters simply for having stood nearby as acts of property damage and violence were committed — all to nothing but crickets from civil libertarians, only a few years after similar prosecutorial overreach against the J20 defendants inspired sustained outrage and alarm.
Whether it’s a conscious strategy isn’t clear, but it’s a plain fact that national security agencies are now increasingly leaning on right-wing terrorists as the go-to justification for the same demands they were making when Islamic terror was the horror of the day, from internet censorship, to weakening encryption. In the process, they’ve tapped into a more liberal-minded audience that has switched its position on all these issues now that the ostensible targets have changed.
What’s particularly frustrating is that we were all just handed a walking, talking cautionary tale about the perils of this sort of thing in the form of Donald Trump. The tail-end of Trump’s presidency showed exactly how dangerous a sprawling national security apparatus could be in the wrong hands, and yet not even a year later, liberals are pushing to vest the federal government with even more authoritarian powers, ones that will be handed down to the next extreme Republican who wins the presidency… who very well might be Donald Trump. Meanwhile, already the FBI has used the Capitol riot as a justification to go after left-wing protesters and dissidents, a sure sign of what’s to come, as Biden’s domestic “war on terror” strategy has made clear.
While right-wing mobs and white supremacists are nothing to scoff at, the potential for American fascism has always been most rooted in those institutions of authority that prize “law and order” and property rights over justice and civil liberties, the very same ones we watched last year brutalizing unarmed protesters and journalists, kidnapping people off the street, and turning American cities into foreign war zones — and who are still attacking nonviolent activists without a care in the world. The Left should be at the front lines opposing a startling push to feed them more power and resources. Instead, far too many are silent, or even cheering it on.