The FBI was found not guilty in a federal courthouse in Wichita this week.
Instead, the jury convicted three Kansans who called themselves “the Crusaders” of scheming to kill as many Somali refugees as possible in a Garden City bombing that never happened.
Defense attorneys for the three men put the bureau on trial, arguing that their agents were the real crusaders, and that it was their paid informant who was at every juncture urging on their malleable and morally shriveled, Muslim-hating clients.
It was their informant, Dan Day, who after infiltrating their militia, repeatedly urged the defendants not to let down the “cause” by backing out. He told them outright lies, like that ISIS was recruiting at a local library and that refugees were driving around in $40,000 cars, to keep their anger up.
Wednesday’s guilty verdicts were far from assured, especially against the backdrop of the president’s protracted war against his own FBI.
Donald Trump’s anger at the bureau’s former director, James Comey, and vice versa, has helped flip the old politics in which it was Republicans who tended to see agents as Boy Scouts and Democrats who sometimes saw them as zealots untroubled if they happened to run over a few civil liberties on their way to justice.
That’s why the defense, arguing that the men on trial had been influenced by 2016 campaign rhetoric — though whose, they never spelled out — tried to pack the jury with as many Trump voters as possible. In a motion the judge rejected, they wanted voters from redder counties in western Kansas that went even more heavily for the president in 2016 included in the jury pool.
And it’s why they cast the defendants as martyrs for free expression. James Pratt, a lawyer for Patrick Stein, who referred to Muslims as cockroaches and to himself as an “Orkin man” exterminator, put his free speech case this way: “We all have the right to hate.”
Melody Brannon, one of Curtis Allen’s lawyers, even made it sound like the liberal FBI is against the Second Amendment. Allen “was a member of a militia. He loved his guns. This was a lifestyle. The government tried to criminalize that lifestyle.”
The attorney general sided with his own Justice Department, and with the jury, which found Allen, Stein and Gavin Wright guilty of conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction and conspiracy against rights.
The defendants, who now face life in prison, “acted with clear premeditation in an attempt to kill people on the basis of their religion and national origin,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement. “That’s not just illegal — it’s immoral and unacceptable, and we’re not going to stand for it.”
Without having heard all of the testimony, we take no position on the verdict, but do question some of the tactics cooked up by the FBI, who accidentally taped themselves debating just how far and how fast they could go in building their case.
But when any law enforcement officer bends the rules, even for some higher purpose, and yes, even against the sort of twisted person who sees Muslims as cockroaches, the result can only be the further erosion of trust in institutions we all rely on.