"Battling for the Future of Our Democracy"
Expert Talks with national security expert Frank Figliuzzi
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It was uplifting to talk to Frank Figliuzzi, the former FBI assistant director of counterintelligence, NBC and MSNBC analyst, and author of The FBI Way—not because there aren’t painful days ahead confronting the insurrection at the Capitol and beyond, prosecuting over 500 charged perpetrators, dealing with the dangers of a radicalized population glued to the Big Lie and fueled by political violence, and addressing how to de-program violent, white supremacist extremists.
No, I was encouraged because of his confidence that the career prosecutors are doing their job, and they recognize the severity of what the country is facing. Here’s how Frank put it: "It's not an exaggeration to say that they literally are battling for the future of our democracy, and what it looks like."
For all of us who are impatient to see justice served, including me, Frank underscored the scale of what’s underway.
“My contacts tell me that this is very much still the largest, fastest moving investigation in the FBI's history. I have to tell you, I questioned it, because I was in the FBI during the aftermath of 9/11, and I thought nothing would get bigger than that...But the scope of this is so large.
When we talk prior, ongoing, is this still happening? 9/11 had a beginning, a middle, and an end—the crash ended that criminal incident. But here's the differentiator….this is ongoing in terms of the threat to this country. [And]…they're in our backyard, sometimes our front yard. This domestic extremism and violence is still very much with us.”
Frank also talked about the “mountain of evidence,” including on social media and in myriad digital forms, which is “‘unprecedented to wade through” and should remind us of why this is not going faster.
“For those who are on my Twitter feed and say, ‘Frank, it's taking too long’…Well, we all want it to go faster. Yeah, yeah. I say…this is incredibly fast. We have 400 and some odd people that we're talking about prosecuting…We're seeing charges of conspiracy, which is fantastic. We're seeing people sign cooperating agreements as part of their guilty plea—a founding lifetime member of the Oath Keepers has done that. And it looks like we've got another cooperator coming down the pike here. So it's going as best as I think could be expected.”
But don’t doubt his awareness of the continuing dangers every additional day it takes to prosecute the insurrectionists and confront the ongoing dangers to our democracy.
“I always risk being accused of adding too much melodrama here. But I truly believe this: I think we're looking at the possibility of a semi-permanent insurgency inside our country. I don't see this going away. Early on, before Trump left office, I said his departure from office would not make this go away and could, quite frankly, embolden people. And it has.”
And what of the elected officials who could be charged for incitement of insurrection or other criminal acts on before or on January 6? Frank’s view is complicated, indeed layered with uncertainty. “I know people may not want to hear this, but the stature, the fact that elected officials in Congress might be backing, encouraging, maybe even facilitated this event on January 6, complicates things….”
He compares it to the challenges dealing with Al Qaeda and how confronting them—playing “whack-a-mole every time they rear their head”— “empowers and emboldens them, that they're in this battle with you.”
“So when you talk about going after elected officials, you really can energize those who feel like their vote, the people they put into office to represent them are now being literally canceled, and that our democracy is imperiled by that. And I'm sure that the DOJ and the FBI, I know from my own experience, are incredibly concerned that if they don't get it right, and if they if they take the wrong path on this, it can actually make things much, much worse. The ideal situation, Steven, is that America just decides we don't want these threats in office anymore. We're not going to vote for them anymore. It's way too late if the FBI is dragging people out of their congressional offices in handcuffs.”
But just as Attorney General Merrick Garland said investigators will pursue the leads “where they take us,” Frank also expects this could reach the highest levels: “I do think it's going to climb as high as you could possibly climb, [but] it's going to be a rough ride.”
We also talked at some length about the scale and the danger of the radicalized population, acknowledging that the gravest danger is the subsection of Trump voters fueled by the Big Lie and white supremacy—specifically, those who are prepared to act violently. Here again, we discussed them in context of Jihadists who long for purpose in their lives, who feel overwhelmed by the complexity of the world, and are vulnerable to exploitation.
“We're right back to what Chris Wray said about the role of white supremacy in all of this, because so much of this has to do with folks just harkening back to a simpler time, right? You know, 'I remember when I didn't have my job outsourced to people with brown skin in India,' and 'I remember when we didn't have border problems.' So much of what we're experiencing right now is a demographic having a struggle to come to grips with a society that is just moving at warp speed. It's been exacerbated by a complicated global pandemic, that no one can figure out. And people are grasping for anyone who will hand them a simple solution to a complex problem.
“And I'll never forget President Trump—I'm digressing here, but—remember, when the Boeing aircraft kept crashing, and there were two or three major crashes and decisions had to be made on whether to just stop this aircraft from flying and President Trump got on TV, and he said, ‘You know, I just think airplanes are getting too complicated to fly.’ And that said it all for me…it wasn't that, hey, the company got it wrong, or the engineers need to redo this, it was that things are getting just too complicated.”
So what can be done? Frank hesitated, recognizing the particular difficulty of shifting the trajectory of the radical extremists who are desperate to belong to something outside of themselves. We talked about the impact of rising job opportunities to pull people out of this destructive path.
As for the larger population, we also talked about civics education, the power of criminal accountability to make people think twice about violence, the power of multibillion-dollar lawsuits to influence the right-wing media. “Look, educators, clergy, corporations, absolutely big tech, government officials, law enforcement, intelligence—all of this has to somehow come together.”
And we ended with Frank reflecting on the role of elected Republicans—both the dismally few number who see the danger of the Big Lie and its threat to our democracy and the others who have cynically calculated their opportunity to exploit the worst instincts and are willing to sustain the con to get and keep power.
"The Liz Cheneys, the Mitt Romneys of the world who are trying really to do the right thing, they may end up being some of the strongest factors here. Let's make something clear: the Ted Cruzes, the Josh Hawleys, the Marco Rubios, they don't really believe any of this nonsense. Ted Cruz doesn't believe that Donald Trump is still the president of the United States. He doesn't believe that vaccines are implanting chips in anybody. You're being played if you're listening to these people. These people have one goal, which is to stay in power. In fact, some of them want to be the next Donald Trump and they see this as the best way to do it."
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