The FBI Entraps Citizens To Claim Success Against Terror

Dees Illustration

Rehanna Jones-Boutaleb
Foreign Policy in Focus

On August 28, 2008, two childhood friends from Midland, Texas, Bradley Crowder and David McKay, traveled north to join thousands of protesters at the 2008 Republican National Convention (RNC). In the company of six Austin activists, Crowder and McKay were ready for adventure, and prepared, in Crowder’s words, to protest to “change the world.” What began as a journey of hope, however, ended in sudden catastrophe. Crowder and McKay’s efforts to mark their opposition to the Republican administration and the U.S. involvement in Iraq resulted in multiple charges of domestic terrorism and a high-stakes entrapment defense in federal court. What the “Texas Two” hadn’t realized in Minnesota was that their trusted comrade, Brandon Michael Darby – the very activist to whom they had looked for inspiration and guidance – was in fact an FBI informant.

Tracing Crowder and McKay’s saga from its very origins, the 2011 documentary Better this Worldcunningly unveils the intricacies of the two protestors’ federal trials, as well as the media sensation they precipitated. The film, which is scheduled to air nationally on PBS’s “POV” series, not only provides a nuanced perspective of two alleged cases of domestic terrorism but also cuts to the heart of the “war on terror” and its effect upon civil liberties.

Aiming to go beyond the “nice-kids-turned-domestic-terrorists” narrative propagated by mainstream media sources, film-makers Kelly Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega have turned their attention to the viewpoints of the key players themselves: Crowder, McKay, and Darby. Although both directors are clearly sympathetic toward the convicted Texas youths, they take care to interview multiple FBI agents and prosecutors, providing viewers with conflicting approaches to the trials. The result is a documentary thriller that stands as both a compelling character study and a necessary reminder of the broader themes behind McKay and Crowder’s testimony, namely the post-9/11 security apparatus and the use, and abuse, of informants in the government’s “war on terror.”

David v. Goliath

Playing out against the backdrop of the RNC in St. Paul, Minnesota, Better this World opens with visceral footage from the 2008 protests. These recordings, alongside testimonies detailing McKay and Crowder’s involvement with Austin’s progressive scene, reveal that both youths were not only newcomers to the activist community but also indisputably shocked by what they encountered in St. Paul. There was, in Crowder’s words, a “pervasive sense of occupation…it was a war zone…a police state.” Indeed, police searched the group’s rented white van without a warrant on its arrival in St. Paul and seized their homemade shields constructed for the protests.

Unnerved by this illegal bust and inspired by Darby’s militant polemics, Crowder and McKay walked into a Walmart on August 31 and bought provisions to construct Molotov cocktails. Although they proceeded to make eight bottled gasoline bombs, the next morning the two protestors realized, in Mckay’s words, that they “didn’t know what they were doing.” Leaving the Molotovs behind, they joined other protestors in St. Paul only to be arrested soon after for disorderly conduct. Due to lack of identification on his person, Crowder was held in jail.

At this point, the narrative takes its tragic turn. Incensed that Crowder had not been released, McKay foolishly announced to Darby that he was planning to throw his homemade bombs on police cars in a nearby parking lot. His conversation with Darby, held in a moment of hotheadedness, was in fact being transmitted to the FBI through electronic surveillance gear. Although McKay and Darby agreed to meet once more at 2 a.m. to use the Molotovs, McKay decided against this plan and ceased contact with Darby. Nevertheless, several hours later, just before McKay was due to leave for the airport, the FBI arrested him at gunpoint.

When McKay took his case to trial, arguing that he’d walked into an FBI trap, he was facing up to 30 years in federal prison. As his father remarked in a phone conversation prior to his trial, the case was that of “David against Goliath.” An entrapment defense had no precedent of success in the United States. Crowder, in contrast, found himself in a more secure position; he had never conversed with Darby on employing firebombs. The prosecution offered him a two-year plea deal for accepting one charge of possession of unregistered firearms. In the belief that this would exempt him from testifying against McKay, Crowder agreed to these terms.

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Acts of Entrapment Ruled OK in The War on Terror

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