MAGA Election Violence Absent—For Now
By Elaine Shannon, November 9 2022
Anybody heading for Phoenix to snarl traffic for Kari Lake and Blake Masters? To Harrisburg to storm the state capitol for Mehmet Oz? To Atlanta to burn it all down for Herschel Walker?
So far, no. FBI-Homeland Security warnings of violence around the 2022 mid-terms now seem a little pearl-clutchy.
Twenty-five minutes past midnight on Wednesday, Walker, the football superstar turned Republican candidate for Georgia’s crucial U.S. Senate seat, mildly counseled his supporters to “hang in there a little bit longer” in anticipation of a Dec. 6 runoff against Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock. There was no talk from him or other MAGA Republicans along the lines of Donald Trump’s bellicose invitation to the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” widely seen as an incitement to the January 6, 2021, insurrection. Instead, Walker cheerfully recounted Ronald Reagan’s beloved bromide about the kid who thought he’d find a pony if he shoveled enough horse manure. (He didn’t credit Reagan.) He compared himself to Will Ferrell’s goofball NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby, who flips his race car and maniacally staggers over the Talladega finish line on foot, despite knowing he’ll be disqualified for lack of vehicle.
Does absence of anarchy mean the U.S. government’s intelligence is flawed or hyped? What about the FBI/Homeland Security bulletin, based on that intelligence and circulated to law enforcement and widely leaked late last month? It warned, “Following the 2022 midterm election, perceptions of election-related fraud and dissatisfaction with electoral outcomes likely will result in heightened threats of violence against a broad range of targets―such as ideological opponents and election workers.”
Yet “fraud” and “stop the steal” cries, so far, have been fleeting and muted, and mob mayhem, absent.
But it’s not over, FBI counter-terror veterans say. Because it’s not THIS election that is driving all that online crazy. Agitation and paranoia about the 2024 Presidential race, distrust of balloting systems and the generally sour national mood will keep a lot of people pacing, venting on social media, and a few, assembling arsenals.
“It’s not going to get better before it gets worst,” says Tom O’Connor, who retired from the FBI in 2019 after nearly 23 years working domestic and foreign terror cases. “I’m not blaming the right or the left. I’m blaming the voices, and there’s too many of them. Everybody’s gotta come together and grow up, and I don’t see it happening.”
“It doesn’t end,” says another FBI veteran, “because 50 percent of the population is never going to be satisfied. We all know for the foreseeable future that we’re not going to get any closer to political compromise. The danger factor may possibly increase, if Trump announces and then he is indicted. I’m sure [Attorney General] Merrick Garland is losing sleep over that.”
“I am happy to report that today has been relatively quiet on the political violence front,” Suzanne Almeida, director of state operations for Common Cause, told reporters Tuesday, according to the Washington Post. “We were absolutely prepared for more significant incidents, but they simply have not come to fruition.”
O’Connor, now training police officials through his firm, FEDSquared Consulting, says it’s no time to relax vigilance. If anything, he says, the FBI and other law enforcement and security agencies need to work harder to overcome the huge UNK-UNK (Unknown-Unknown) problem. Agents know that they don’t know what they don’t know, and that bedevils them.
In the weeks leading up to Election Day, FBI agents were almost certainly poring over threat reports gleaned from online platforms, wiretaps and tips from human sources, bureau veterans say. “For a lot of people who are sending threats online, it’s not that hard to get the identity of the person and go knock on their door,” says a former senior FBI counter-terror official who still trains others. (Like some others, he asked for anonymity to discuss operations.) “For the most part, agents are knocking on doors, to get a sense of how much of this stuff is real, how much is idle bragging. Then you go to bed at night and pray you might be right.”
Most of those situations turn out to be ambiguous—certainly not enough evidence to justify a criminal case and an arrest. Even so, FBI officials believe that it’s not necessary to arrest all potential law-breakers; they think that a simple chat in a hothead’s living room is message enough that the feds know exactly—exactly—– where he is, what he’s been up to, and can find him anytime they choose
The Silent Ones
But there are surely a few people capable of carrying out monster attacks who aren’t mouthing off publicly and who haven’t had any brushes with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.
“What you always worry about are the people who are not online, “ says a retired FBI official. As he and other veterans remember all too painfully, immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, agents and analysts went into the counter-terror database and pulled every threat that mentioned “airplane,” “airport,” or “airline.” They came up with about 1,200 threats—and not a single one came from anybody who had anything to do with the Al Qaeda cell that actually carried out the attacks. The reason: the hijackers simply didn’t talk to anybody, or have known relationships in the U.S., or send incriminating emails to known Al Qaeda members. There were a couple of missed contacts, but nothing that raised a huge red flag.
An example that haunts FBI agents to this day is Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski. The former mathematics professor lived alone in a remote cabin in Montana. He talked to no one about his grievances. He mailed 16 bombs, starting in 1978, killing three people, and was identified only when he sent a “manifesto” in 1995. The FBI, still clueless, gave it to the Washington Post. David Kaczynski saw similarities with essay written by his estranged brother, called the FBI and in 1996 made a deal in exchange for an agreement that the government would not seek the death penalty. “Ted Kaczynski was UNABOM suspect number 2,416,” says an FBI summary of the case. Which means that the FBI plodded through 2,415 other suspects over 18 years before getting its man.
Tim McVeigh, convicted of bombing the Oklahoma City federal building on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people, including 19 children, kept his thoughts mostly to himself. FBI could find only two men, both friends of McVeigh, who knew his plan. No organization, no network, no online postings. McVeigh was executed June 11, 2001, exactly four months before the September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda attacks.
Then there was Nashville Christmas Day bomber Anthony Quinn Warner, an IT expert who blew up himself, his beloved dogs and a city block on Dec. 25, 2020 with an ingenious bomb rigged in his van. The FBI solved that crime quickly, concluding that Warner was motivated by “eccentric” conspiracy theories, such as paranoia about space lizards. Luckily, Warner killed no one other than himself, because if he had gone on a Unabomber-like rampage, it could have taken quite a while to locate him. He didn’t go online, and he expressed bits and pieces of his paranoid fantasies to a handful of people, who didn’t put two and two together until his spectacular end.
The FBI’s failure to anticipate the 9/11 attacks is often called a “failure of imagination.” In 2001, the FBI knew Al Qaeda was going to stage another attack, but agents were looking for bombers or shooters who were part of organized conspiracies and who had access to considerable equipment. Agents did not conceive of individuals who would train as pilots, force their way into cockpits and fly airliners into buildings.
To be sure, the FBI was well aware of the so-called Bojinka plot, a plan hatched by Ramzi Yousef, who bombed the World Trade Center in Manhattan in 1993, and his uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, to bomb some airliners. This plan was foiled when police in the Philippines responded to an apartment building fire and discovered bomb-making materials and a laptop containing elements of the plot. Yousef, captured in Pakistan in 1995, and two confederates were convicted for this conspiracy. In a separate trial, Yousef and two others were convicted for the World Trade Center bombing. Those plots, like the downing of Pan Am 103 in 1988, involved bombs on planes, so U.S. airport and airplane security authorities and law enforcers focused on looking for explosive devices and firearms—not the boxcutters wielded by the 9/11 hijackers.
Even after 9/11 and Al Qaeda attacks overseas, domestic terror, or DVE – domestic violent extremism – was not a top priority for the FBI. It has been elevated to greater importance in recent years.
Even so, says O’Connor, “You only have so many agents and analysts who can work these things. They have to be able to juggle several balls and do it well, because the terrorists only have to get it right once.”
O’Connor calls the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol another failure of imagination. “That thousands of individuals were going to raid the U.S. Capitol violently was outside a lot of people’s minds,” O’Connor says. To date, the Justice Department has charged more than 900 people in the so-called Capitol Breach investigation. Stewart Rhodes, leader of the radical militia group Oath Keepers, is currently standing trial in Washington, D.C. for seditious conspiracy in that case. When the verdict is about to come down, the FBI and other federal, state and local law enforcement organizations will be on alert.
Far more incendiary would be an indictment of former President Trump, currently under multiple investigations for inciting the January 6 riot, mishandling national security information and for financial crimes.
“I don’t see any other Republican who can rally the troops out there,” says the retired FBI counter-terror veteran. “I don’t think any of them can command the outpouring of rage that he can. If they [the U.S. Justice Department and FBI] get ready to indict him, they’ll put out the word to advise every state and local police agency out there.”
Elaine Shannon is a veteran national security correspondent for Time and Newsweek. Latest book: Hunting LeRoux (HarperCollins/Michael Mann Books)