In October 2020, the FBI and the Justice Department announced the arrest of six Michigan militia members who called themselves the Wolverine Watchmen. The FBI claimed that federal agents had thwarted an elaborate plot hatched by the men to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
“These alleged extremists undertook a plot to kidnap a sitting governor,” FBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Josh P. Hauxhurst said in a 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.”
In addition to those charged federally, eight other members of the Wolverine Watchmen were arrested on state charges related to the plot. The arrests made national news, in part because a group of right-wing extremists plotting to kidnap a high-profile Democrat fit with the prevailing media narrative at the time that President Donald Trump was fomenting violence as part of his reelection campaign. The announcement of the kidnapping plan even knocked a hurricane’s landfall out of the top spot on CBS Evening News.
But the circumstances of the case and the megaphone the Justice Department used to publicize it were familiar. As with the prosecutions of more than 350 international terrorism defendants caught in post-9/11 FBI terrorism stings, in which agents or informants provide encouragement and weapons for criminal plots, questions of entrapment quickly emerged in the Wolverine Watchmen case. The FBI had used at least a dozen informants and several undercover agents to build the case. One of the group’s key members, known as “Big Dan,” was an FBI informant. Another, an apparent explosives expert whose role was critical to the alleged kidnapping plan, was in fact an FBI undercover agent.
“There’s nothing wrong with using confidential sources to help facilitate or move along an investigation, but it becomes really dicey when, in a case like this one, there are nearly as many informants as there are defendants,” Michael Sherwin, the former deputy attorney general for national security during the Trump administration, told The Intercept. “That’s a huge red flag, making you wonder if this is one of those cases that are manufactured to increase stats.”
Sherwin, a career federal prosecutor, also served as the acting U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia during the end of the Trump administration and the beginning of the Biden administration. Because Sherwin had prosecuted a Chinese businesswoman who trespassed at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, his arrival in Washington under Attorney General Bill Barr was initially viewed by some as further evidence of a politicized Justice Department. Sherwin approved of providing internal FBI records to lawyers representing former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was charged with making false statements to the FBI. In a controversial move, the Justice Department then sought to dismiss the case against Flynn.
Despite his role in controversial and high-profile cases, however, Sherwin wasn’t seen by everyone as a political henchman. The Miami Herald’s editorial board, whose members were familiar with Sherwin’s long career as federal prosecutor in Florida, suggested that President Joe Biden retain Sherwin at the Justice Department. And when Biden asked 56 Trump-appointed U.S. attorneys to step down, Sherwin wasn’t among them.
Sherwin was the top federal prosecutor in the District of Columbia during the U.S. Capitol riot on January 6, 2021, and he went on to lead what became the largest criminal investigation in American history, giving him a unique perspective on how the government is responding to domestic extremists and how politics and public pressure have shaped that response.
“January 6 was significant,” he said. “Were there dangerous actors there? Yes. Were there other just garden-variety criminals who got arrested? Of course. But the thing I think people are losing sight of is that this is nothing new. Going back to Ruby Ridge, going back to Waco, going back to Oklahoma City, going back to the militia groups in Michigan and Arizona — this is something that has existed for decades.”
Sherwin took the national stage in March 2021, when he gave an interview to “60 Minutes” in which he said he believed that in the cases of some Capitol rioters, the facts of their alleged crimes could support charges of sedition, a rarely filed and serious criminal offense. (His prediction came true nearly a year later, when federal prosecutors charged Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes and 10 others with seditious conspiracy.) Although the Justice Department had given Sherwin permission to speak about the January 6 investigation at news conferences, they had not authorized him to speak to “60 Minutes,” and a U.S. District Court judge overseeing one of the January 6 cases complained that Sherwin’s “60 Minutes” interview had “the potential to affect the jury pool and the rights of these defendants.” The Justice Department launched an internal probe of Sherwin for violating Justice Department media protocols. The probe’s results have never been released. Sherwin later resigned from the Justice Department to take a position in private practice, a move he says he had previously been planning.
Having witnessed firsthand how the Justice Department was changing its approach to domestic extremist cases, Sherwin questions whether highly publicized FBI stings might exaggerate the threat in the same way that similar stings produced hundreds of Islamist terrorism cases and helped inflate the perceived danger of international terrorism inside the United States. The Michigan sting involving the plot to kidnap Whitmer is emblematic of his concern. “This case is a disaster,” Sherwin said.
Jury selection in the federal trial of the Wolverine Watchmen began this week. Defense lawyers have signaled that they will argue that their clients were entrapped, and while entrapment defenses have rarely succeeded in international terrorism sting cases, the Justice Department appears concerned. Prosecutors cut a plea deal on the eve of the trial with one defendant, Kaleb Franks, in exchange for his testimony that he was not entrapped by government agents.
“The key to the government’s plan was to turn general discontent with Gov. Whitmer’s COVID-19 restrictions into a crime that could be prosecuted,” defense lawyers wrote in a joint motion. “The government picked what it knew would be a sensational charge: conspiracy to kidnap the governor. When the government was faced with evidence showing that the defendants had no interest in a kidnapping plot, it refused to accept failure and continued to push its plan.”
During the first two decades after 9/11, undercover terrorism stings became common, allowing the FBI to nab would-be terrorists and justify billions of dollars in counterterrorism funding but also leading to potentially illegal mass surveillance of Muslims and accusations of entrapment.
Now, as the Justice Department creates a new domestic terrorism unit and the FBI reorients to combat a perceived growing threat from domestic extremists, the Wolverine Watchmen case suggests that federal agents may rely on the same sting tactics that helped overstate the risk of Islamist terrorism to investigate potential domestic extremists.
The conflict between right-wing extremism and federal law enforcement isn’t new in America. Nearly four decades before the creation of the FBI, the agency’s predecessor, known as the Bureau of Investigation, received authority to investigate the Ku Klux Klan and prosecute its members in federal court. More recently, the Oklahoma City bombing; the standoffs at Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho; and investigations of militia groups shaped federal law enforcement agencies’ response to domestic extremists.
But after the 9/11 attacks, Congress expanded anti-terrorism laws and powers and the Bush administration reorganized the FBI into an agency focused primarily on counterterrorism, with the threat of Islamist extremism the paramount concern. The Justice Department formed an entirely new branch, the National Security Division, which was initially so consumed by the threat of international terrorist groups that domestic extremism investigations did not fall under its purview. Even after domestic terrorism became part of the National Security Division’s mandate, a double standard defined the first two decades after 9/11: Islamist extremists involved in bombing plots were always charged under anti-terrorism laws, such as using weapons of mass destruction and providing material support to terrorists, while domestic extremists engaged in similar crimes usually faced lesser explosives charges.
This double standard had the effect of playing up the threat from Islamist extremists, as the Justice Department issued press releases touting these terrorism charges and media coverage followed dutifully, while downplaying the threat of domestic extremists, whose prosecutions were often not announced with the same fanfare, if they were announced at all. Trump’s call as a presidential candidate for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” tapped into the Islamophobic hysteria that the Justice Department had helped create over 15 years of high-profile terrorism prosecutions.
Violence from individual Trump supporters, inspired by the candidate who went on to become president, began to alter that narrative even as the Justice Department remained hesitant to bring terrorism charges against right-wing actors. When Emily Claire Hari (who was convicted under the name Michael) led a group of people inspired by Trump-related conspiracy theories to bomb a mosque in Minnesota and try to a bomb women’s clinic in Illinois, the Justice Department didn’t bring terrorism-related charges.
Still, the Hari case was one of several during Trump’s presidency that raised questions about potential violence by his supporters. Inside the FBI, some agents eventually described these threats as “conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists.” In the fall of 2018, a strip club DJ in Florida named Cesar Sayoc started mailing bombs to current and former Democratic Party officials and news organizations, among others. Sayoc drove a white van whose windows were covered in stickers that praised Trump and denigrated media organizations and Democratic Party politicians. His arrest made international news: a perfect vision of the feared Trump supporter as terrorist.
Sherwin, who had come to Miami in 2007 as a federal prosecutor after serving as a Navy intelligence officer in Iraq and Afghanistan, was by then a top national security prosecutor in the Justice Department. He was the lead prosecutor who tracked, captured, and interrogated Sayoc in South Florida. In line with the Justice Department’s practices at the time, Sherwin charged Sayoc with explosives violations and making threats. But the case, under withering media scrutiny that included live helicopter coverage of the FBI investigation, quickly became a political football inside the Justice Department. Sayoc was extradited to New York, where several of his bombs had been sent, in a move that Sherwin saw as the Justice Department making decisions in response to public and political pressure.
“Cesar Sayoc sent a litany of mail bombs to a lot of high-profile individuals and the media,” Sherwin said. “Those bombs were all constructed in South Florida. They were all mailed from South Florida. He was detained and arrested in South Florida. The case ends up in New York because of politics, because it got a lot of headlines, because people at Main Justice at the time hooked up different people in the Southern District [of New York] with bringing the case there.”
In Manhattan, prosecutors took the step, then uncommon in prosecutions of domestic extremists, of filing weapons of mass destruction charges against Sayoc — terrorism charges that required approval from the Justice Department’s National Security Division. This treatment was more in line with the way the Justice Department had handled bombing cases involving Islamist extremists. In U.S. law, weapons of mass destruction are defined so broadly that they could include any sort of crude improvised explosive device, making the law’s application subject to political will. (Notably, the charges in the Michigan sting case include conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction.)
“It goes back to feeding the beast — allowing people to get headlines and funding.”
“Cesar Sayoc was making real devices,” Sherwin said. “They were extremely low-wattage devices he learned to make on the internet with firecracker residue. They were devices my 18-year-old son could have made watching YouTube. They were active, but they weren’t constructed properly. I think they would have taken off a finger, but they wouldn’t have killed anyone. Is that a weapon of mass destruction? Look, I don’t want to fence with the definition of WMD under the U.S. criminal code, but I think sometimes labels are overextended on individuals, and it goes back to feeding the beast — allowing people to get headlines and funding. Sometimes, if a case straddles on just a regular criminal case and maybe — maybe — it has a breadcrumb of a domestic terrorism case, it’s thrown over the line and called a domestic terrorism case, because it makes the numbers look better. It justifies money and spending on Joint Terrorism Task Forces and everything else.”
That’s what happened in some international terrorism prosecutions during the two decades after 9/11, Sherwin said. The Justice Department has charged more than 80 defendants in international terrorism cases with using or conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction. In some of these cases, the bombs were just as crude and infective as Sayoc’s.
Although domestic terrorism is defined in U.S. law, the Justice Department and the FBI have been unclear about what constitutes a domestic terrorism case and how many cases are open at any given time. Through a Freedom of Information Act request, The Intercept obtained a 60-page domestic terrorism case list, from 2018, from the National Security Division. While heavily redacted, the list shows that the Justice Department had broken down domestic terrorism offenses into what prosecutors termed “affiliations,” including abortion extremism, anarchist extremism, animal rights extremism, Black separatist extremism, environmental extremism, and militia extremism.
While the list included some defendants whose crimes could be considered terrorism — such as Glendon Scott Crawford, who was arrested following an FBI sting in which he tried to build a radiological “death ray” to kill Muslims — it also included individuals whose terrorism label appeared questionable, such as a college student who sent an empty threat and a Native American activist who fired a handgun while resisting arrest during a protest.
In recent testimony before Congress, the FBI’s director, Christopher Wray, has thrown out large numbers to describe the FBI’s domestic terrorism case load. In 2017, he told Congress that there were “about 1,000 open domestic terrorism investigations.” Three years later, he claimed that number had risen to 2,000. Six months after offering that number, Wray told Congress that the FBI was handling “around 2,700 investigations.”
Having seen how politics shaped the Sayoc prosecution and how numbers drive policy and funding in Washington, Sherwin views Wray’s numbers skeptically, since the FBI is under political pressure to show a muscled response to domestic extremism. “So of course, you pump up those numbers,” Sherwin said. “Maybe it’s 100 full field investigations, but you pump up that number to 2,000, even if it’s just the opening of a preliminary assessment on one 17-year-old in his basement in Ohio.”
Pete Musico wasn’t hiding his contempt for Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who’d been elected just two years after Great Lake State voters helped send Trump to the White House.
A white man in his early 40s with a long beard and short-cropped hair, Musico aired his rough-edged political views in the oversharing way people seem to favor nowadays — through hastily recorded videos mostly from the driver’s seat of his car and then uploaded to YouTube. So what if the camera angles were unflattering, the picture jerky, and the background noise distracting? Musico had something to say.
“We all carry guns. We all got guns,” he declared in one video. “There will be a civil war in this country.”
Musico’s platform wasn’t exactly big. His videos rarely garnered more than 100 views, and some got fewer than 10. His YouTube account had started innocently, with a short video of his 13-year-old daughter dancing with her mother. But after Trump took office in 2017, Musico began recording video rants about the “deep state,” immigration, taxes, and gun control. He fashioned himself as a citizen journalist and claimed that he’d tried to secure an interview with Whitmer. “As soon as I get the interview with her, we’re going to go live … OK?” Musico told his audience from the driver’s seat of his car.
But Musico wasn’t the only one making videos during this period. The FBI was filming too.
Musico and his son-in-law, Joseph Morrison, had started the Wolverine Watchmen. They recruited people through Facebook and invited them to tactical trainings on land around Morrison’s home, about 30 miles west of Ann Arbor. Some of those who attended were FBI informants.
The training sessions evolved into talk of violent anti-government plots, some allegedly proposed by a man named Adam Fox, a then-37-year-old with a scraggly beard and a paunch. The talk of these plots took on urgency and detail during training trips to Ohio and Wisconsin, which were secretly paid for by the FBI. The Wolverine Watchmen discussed a proposal to “black bag,” or kidnap, politicians, though a few members of the group initially thought the idea couldn’t work. As alternatives, they discussed planting explosives at police stations or storming the state Capitol in Lansing with a 200-man force equipped with machine guns and sniper rifles. But Fox still allegedly pushed for the “black bag,” and the plan was very specific: They’d kidnap Whitmer, whom Fox referred to as “this tyrant bitch,” and then try her for treason in their very own kangaroo court. “Snatch and grab, man,” Fox told some members of the group. “Grab the fuckin’ governor. Just grab the bitch, because at that point, we do that, dude — it’s over.”
In the summer of 2020, after Trump tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” in response to pandemic restrictions and protests erupted in the state, about a dozen members of the Wolverine Watchmen began surveilling Whitmer’s vacation home. They came up with an audacious plan: Bomb the lead car in the governor’s security detail, kidnap her, and then use explosives to destroy a nearby bridge, cutting off any police officers trying to mount a rescue. But the group’s ability to pull off this “Rambo”-style plan was questionable, even to the Wolverine Watchmen themselves. Fox, whom the government would later describe as the group’s ringleader, had so much trouble remembering the street number of Whitmer’s vacation home that the others called him “Captain Autism.” (Fox has claimed that he was often high on marijuana during this time.)
Lawyers for Fox and his co-defendants have argued that there would not have been a plot to kidnap Whitmer were it not for the FBI’s financing and encouragement through its use of undercover agents and at a least a dozen paid informants.
And so, as the trial of the Wolverine Watchmen begins, a federal jury in Michigan will grapple with a question that has been a staple of similar cases involving alleged supporters of ISIS or Al Qaeda: Was this threat real or manufactured by the FBI?