The defense lawyers using that same trove of evidence material have built an entirely different scenario of what happened. They depict the accused as reluctant puppets entrapped by the F.B.I. agents and informants whom they say came up with the kidnapping plot.
Within weeks of joining, Dan took over the training exercises, introducing a much higher level of military tactics, defense lawyers said. They describe him as consulting closely with his main handler, Agent Jayson Chambers, on matters like who should participate in two surveillance trips to Ms. Whitmer’s cottage.
The suspects discussing violence on the recordings or in encrypted chats was just inflammatory rhetoric, the defense says. Prosecutors say Adam Fox, 38, the group’s ringleader, was living in the basement of a friend’s vacuum cleaner shop where he worked, talking about assaulting the Michigan statehouse just as “Big Dan” was getting involved.
The defense lawyers in the federal case either declined or ignored requests to comment, while a spokesman for the U.S. attorney in Western Michigan said the office would not discuss pending criminal matters. The F.BI referred questions to the U.S. attorney.
Sting operations using informants are a thorny tactic in terror cases. In those developed after the 9/11 attacks, F.B.I. agents often got involved when someone expressed interest in joining Al Qaeda or in fomenting some kind of terrorist act. If the suspects had trouble agreeing on a plot or acquiring weapons, the informants or undercover agents would sometimes help them as a way of gauging criminal intent.
Critics of such F.B.I. methods like Michael German, a former undercover F.B.I. agent, accuse the agency of acting like Cecil B. DeMille, manufacturing complicated, theatrical scenarios rather than pursuing the more complex task of unearthing actual extremist plots.
Mr. German, who is now a fellow at the Liberty & National Security Program of the Brennan Center for Justice, said, “Rather than focus on those crimes and investigating them, there appears to be more interest in this method of manufacturing plots for the FBI to solve.”