The narrative that domestic anti-government extremism is the greatest threat to U.S. national security — the official position of the U.S. security state and the Biden administration — received its most potent boost in October 2020, less than one month before the 2020 presidential election. That was when the F.B.I. and Michigan state officials announced the arrest of thirteen people on terrorism, conspiracy and weapons charges, with six of them accused of participating in a plot to kidnap Michigan’s Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who had been a particular target of criticism from President Trump for her advocacy for harsh COVID lockdown measures.
The headlines that followed were dramatic and fear-inducing: “F.B.I. Says Michigan Anti-Government Group Plotted to Kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer,” announced The New York Times. That same night, ABC News began its broadcast this way: “Tonight, we take you into a hidden world, a place authorities say gave birth to a violent domestic terror plot in Michigan — foiled by the FBI.”
Democrats and liberal journalists instantly seized on this storyline to spin a pre-election theme that was as extreme as it was predictable. Gov. Whitmer herself blamed Trump, claiming that the plotters “heard the president’s words not as a rebuke but as a rallying cry — as a call to action.” Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) claimed that “the president is a deranged lunatic and he’s inspired white supremacists to violence, the latest of which was a plot to kidnap Gov. Whitmer,” adding: “these groups have attempted to KILL many of us in recent years. They are following Trump’s lead.” Vox’s paid television-watcher and video-manipulator, Aaron Rupar, drew this inference: “Trump hasn’t commended the FBI for breaking up Whitmer kidnapping/murder plot because as always he doesn’t want to denounce his base.” Michael Moore called for Trump’s arrest for having incited the kidnapping plot against Gov. Whitmer. One viral tweet from a popular Democratic Party activist similarly declared: “Trump should be arrested for this plot to kidnap Governor Whitmer. There’s no doubt he inspired this terrorism.”
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo instantly declared it to be a terrorist attack on America: “We must condemn and call out the cowardly plot against Governor Whitmer for what it is: Domestic terrorism.” MSNBC’s social media star Kyle Griffin cast it as a coup attempt: “The FBI thwarted what they described as a plot to violently overthrow the government and kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.” CNN’s Jim Sciutto pronounced it “deeply alarming.”
A lengthy CNN article — dressed up as an investigative exposé that was little more than stenography of FBI messaging disseminated from behind a shield of anonymity — purported in the headline to take the reader “Inside the plot to kidnap Gov. Whitmer.” It claimed that it all began when angry discussions about COVID restrictions “spiraled into a terrorism plot, officials say, with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer the target of a kidnapping scheme.” CNN heralded the FBI’s use of informants and agents to break up the plot but depicted them as nothing more than passive bystanders reporting what the domestic terrorists were plotting:
The Watchmen had been flagged to the FBI in March, and one of its members was now an informant. That informant, others on the inside, as well as undercover operatives and recordings, allowed the bureau to monitor what was happening from then on.
The article never once hinted at let alone described the highly active role of these informants and agents themselves in encouraging and designing the plot. Instead, it depicted these anti-government activists as leading one another — on their own — to commit what CNN called “treason in a quaint town.” The more honest headline for this CNN article would have been: “Inside the FBI’s tale of the plot to kidnap Gov. Whitmer.” But since CNN never questions the FBI — they employ their top agents and operatives once they leave the bureau in order to disseminate their propaganda — this is what the country got from The Most Trusted Name in News:
Gov. Whitmer herself attempted to prolong the news cycle as much as possible, all but declaring herself off-limits from criticism by equating any critiques of her governance with incitement to terrorism. Appearing on Meet the Press two Sundays after the plot was revealed, Whitmer said it was “incredibly disturbing that the president of the United States—10 days after a plot to kidnap, put me on trial, and execute me, 10 days after that was uncovered—the president is at it again, and inspiring, and incentivizing, and inciting this kind of domestic terrorism.”
On October 22 — just two weeks before Election Day — MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow hosted Whitmer and told the Michigan Governor that the evidence was clear that Trump had been “turning on a faucet of violent threats” against her. Whitmer agreed that Trump was to blame for the kidnapping plot by having repeatedly attacked her in his rallies:
Joe Biden also made repeated use of this storyline. Appearing at a campaign rally in Michigan on October 16, the Democratic candidate blasted Trump for the crime of continuing to criticize Whitmer even after she was the target of a terror plot. He explicitly blamed Trump for having incited it: “When the president tweeted ‘Liberate Michigan, Liberate Michigan,’ that’s the call that was heard. That was the dog whistle.” And he accused Trump of purposely stoking a wave of the worst kind of terrorism on U.S. soil: “it’s the sort of behavior you might expect from ISIS,” he said of the accused.
When Governor Whitmer worked to protect her state from a deadly pandemic, President Trump issued a call to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” That call was heard. He’s giving oxygen to the bigotry and hate we see on the march in our country — and we have to stop it.
Yet from the start, there were ample and potent reasons to distrust the FBI’s version of events. To begin with, FBI press releases are typically filled with lies, yet media outlets — due to some combination of excessive gullibility, an inability to learn lessons, or a desire to be deceived — continue to treat them as Gospel. For another, the majority of “terror plots” the FBI claimed to detect and break up during the first War on Terror were, in fact, plots manufactured, funded and driven by the FBI itself.
Indeed, the FBI has previously acknowledged that its own powers and budget depend on keeping Americans in fear of such attacks. Former FBI Assistant Director Thomas Fuentes, in a documentary called “The Newberg Sting” about a 2009 FBI arrest of four men on terrorism charges, uttered this extremely candid admission:
If you’re submitting budget proposals for a law enforcement agency, for an intelligence agency, you’re not going to submit the proposal that “We won the war on terror and everything’s great,” cuz the first thing that’s gonna happen is your budget’s gonna be cut in half. You know, it’s my opposite of Jesse Jackson’s ‘Keep Hope Alive’—it’s ‘Keep Fear Alive.’ Keep it alive.
In the Whitmer kidnapping case, the FBI’s own affidavit in support of the charges acknowledged the involvement in the plot of both informants and undercover FBI agents “over several months.”
In sum, there was no way to avoid suspicions about the FBI’s crucial role in a plot like this absent extreme ignorance about the bureau’s behavior over the last two decades or an intentional desire to sow fear about right-wing extremists attacking Democratic Party officials one month before the 2020 presidential election. In fact, the signs of FBI involvement were there from the start for those who — unlike CNN — wanted to know the truth.
A report from the Detroit Free Press published just two days after CNN’s FBI stenography noted that the FBI agents were incapable of identifying any specifics of this supposed plot, adding that defense attorneys were adamant that those accused were merely engaged in idle chatter, boasting that they were never really serious about following through. Then the paper added that, for defense lawyers, “it remains to be seen what roles the undercover informants and FBI agents played in the case, and whether they pushed the others into carrying out the plan.” Meanwhile, an actually independent journalist, Michael Tracey, had no trouble identifying the telltale signs of FBI orchestration that were so apparent countless times during the first War on Terror. Three days before the CNN story, he wrote:
But the value of depicting Trump as having incited a frightening terrorist attack just weeks before the election, and the zeal to feed the broader narrative pushed by the U.S. security state that anti-government extremism is America’s greatest national security threat, drowned out any skepticism. The storyline was clear and unquestioned: Trump was inciting ISIS-like terrorism on U.S. soil and right-wing extremists, who would fester even after Trump was done, were the primary menace that requires new domestic powers and larger budgets in order to defeat.
Yet just as happened with so many other narratives — from the origins of COVID to Hunter Biden’s corrupt use of his ties to his father — Trump’s defeat means the media is now willing to reconsider some of the propaganda that was pushed in the lead-up to the election. An excellent piece of investigative journalism published by BuzzFeed on Tuesday documents that, far from being passive observers of the plot, FBI informants and agents were the key drivers of it:
An examination of the case by BuzzFeed News also reveals that some of those informants, acting under the direction of the FBI, played a far larger role than has previously been reported. Working in secret, they did more than just passively observe and report on the actions of the suspects. Instead, they had a hand in nearly every aspect of the alleged plot, starting with its inception. The extent of their involvement raises questions as to whether there would have even been a conspiracy without them.
So central to this plot were those acting at the behest of the FBI that many of the accused plotters only met each other because of meetings arranged at the direction of the FBI, who targeted them based on social media postings and other political activities that suggested anti-government and anti-Whitmer sentiments which could be exploited:
A longtime government informant from Wisconsin, for example, helped organize a series of meetings around the country where many of the alleged plotters first met one another and the earliest notions of a plan took root, some of those people say. The Wisconsin informant even paid for some hotel rooms and food as an incentive to get people to come.
One of the FBI’s informants, a former Iraq War soldier, “became so deeply enmeshed in a Michigan militant group that he rose to become its second-in-command.” With his leadership role in one of the key groups, and all while acting under the direction of the FBI, he was “encouraging members to collaborate with other potential suspects and paying for their transportation to meetings.” Indeed, he even “prodded the alleged mastermind of the kidnapping plot to advance his plan, then baited the trap that led to the arrest.”
A review of not only the BuzzFeed reporting but also the underlying court documents leaves little doubt that the primary impetus for this plot came over and over from the FBI. On July 12, a lawyer for one of the defendants filed a motion asking the court to compel the FBI to turn over all chats which their agents and informants involving the plot. He did so on the ground that the few chats they had obtained themselves — from their own clients — repeatedly show the FBI pushing and prodding its agents over and over to lure defendants into more meetings, to join in “recon” exercises, and to take as many steps as possible toward the plot.
While it was clear from the start that there were FBI informants and agents in the middle of all of this, it turns out that at least half of those involved were acting on FBI orders: twelve informants and agents. As BuzzFeed says, those acting at the behest of the FBI “had a hand in nearly every aspect of the alleged plot, starting with its inception.” All of that, concluded the reporters, “raises questions as to whether there would have even been a conspiracy without them.”
But this evidence does not so much raise that question as much as it answers it. The idea of kidnapping Gov. Whitmer came from the FBI. It was a plot designed by the agency, and they then went on the hunt to target people they believed they could manipulate into joining their plot — either people were easily manipulated due to psychological weakness, financial vulnerability, and/or their strongly held political views. In sum, the FBI devised this plot, was the primary organizer of it, funded it, purposely directed their targets to pose for incriminating pictures that they then released to the press, and then heaped praise on themselves for stopping what they themselves had created.
For anyone covering the FBI during the first War on Terror, none of this is new. So many of the supposed “terror plots” the FBI purported to disrupt over the last twenty years were — just like the Michigan plot — ones that were created and driven by, and would not have happened without, the FBI’s own planning, funding and direction.
Just as they are doing now, the FBI used those plots to elevate fear levels and justify more domestic surveillance power and funding for the U.S. security state. While the targets then were typically young American Muslims with anti-government views rather than young right-wing white men with anti-government views, the tactics were identical.
The examples are far too numerous to count. As one illustrative example, in 2015, the FBI flamboyantly praised itself for arresting three Brooklyn men on charges of “attempt and conspiracy to provide material support to the Islamic State of Iraq.” Then, as now, outlets such as The New York Times promoted the FBI’s maximalist-fear-mongering version of events: “3 Brooklyn Men Accused of Plot to Aid ISIS’ Fight,” blared the headline.
But even that largely pro-FBI Times article raised the question of whether this plot was real or manufactured by the bureau:
The case against the three men relies in part on a confidential informant paid by the government, court documents show. Defense lawyers have criticized the government’s use of informers in similar cases, saying they may lure targets into making extreme plans or statements. In some cases, the threat has turned out to be overstated.
And the FBI itself admitted that the “threats of violence” from the three arrested — such as killing President Obama — “had an ‘aspirational’ quality to them, with no indication that the suspects were close to staging an attack, large or small.” The Times article also noted that the FBI observed that “in online postings, the two younger men seem to be searching for meaning in their lives,” adding that “as they were led into court, the youthfulness of Mr. Juraboev and Mr. Saidakhmetov was striking.”
Analyzing all the evidence in this case, my then-colleague at The Intercept Murtaza Hussain documented “the integral role a paid informant appears to have played in generating the charges against the men, and helping turn a fantastical ‘plot’ into something even remotely tangible.” Indeed, he wrote, “none of the three men was in any condition to travel or support the Islamic State, without help from the FBI informant.” It was only when the FBI sent an older Muslim man to gain their trust — acting as an FBI informant and being paid for his services — did anything resembling a crime start to form. The paid FBI informant encouraged the young men to pursue the plan more concretely, and only then did they begin agreeing with the informant’s proposed plot. The informant befriended them, moved in with them, and spent months “convincing both of them that he intended to travel to Syria and join Islamic State.”
Just as was true in the Michigan case, Hussain wrote about this arrest: “Crucially, it appears that only after the introduction of the informant did any actual arrangements to commit a criminal act come into existence.” In sum, “the covert informant under the direction of the FBI” — which employs teams of psychologists and other mental health professions who are experts in how to manipulate people’s thinking — “evidently helped encourage the two toward terrorism over the course of these months.”
I have also covered countless other FBI plots over the years where all the same attributes were present. After the 2015 “ISIS arrest,” I wrote an article compiling how often the FBI was doing this and asked this question in the headline: “Why Does the FBI Have to Manufacture its Own Plots if Terrorism and ISIS Are Such Grave Threats?,” noting that the bureau’s behavior “is akin to having the DEA constantly warn of the severe threat posed by drug addiction while it simultaneously uses pushers on its payroll to deliberately get people hooked on drugs so that they can arrest the addicts they’ve created and thus justify their own warnings and budgets.”
Months before the 2015 ISIS arrests, the FBI issued a press release praising itself for arresting “a Cincinnati-area man for a plot to attack the U.S. Capitol and kill government officials.” But as I reported, the scary terrorist was “20-year-old Christopher Cornell, [who] is unemployed, lives at home, spends most of his time playing video games in his bedroom, still addresses his mother as ‘Mommy’ and regards his cat as his best friend; he was described as ‘a typical student’ and ‘quiet but not overly reserved’ by the principal of the local high school he graduated in 2012.”
Then House Speaker John Boehner immediately seized on that arrest to warn Americans to be afraid: “We live in a dangerous country, and we get reminded every week of the dangers that are out there.” Boehner also told Americans they should be grateful for domestic surveillance and not try to curb it: the Speaker claimed that “the National Security Agency’s snooping powers helped stop a plot to attack the Capitol and that his colleagues need to keep that in mind as they debate whether to renew the law that allows the government to collect bulk information from its citizens.” Yet the only way Cornell got close to any crimes was because the FBI informant began suggesting to him that he act on his rage against U.S. officials by attacking the Capitol.
One of the most egregious cases I covered was the 2011 arrest of James Cromitie, an African-American convert to Islam who the FBI attempted to convince — over the course of eight months — to join a terror plot, only for him to adamantly refuse over and over. Only once they dangled a payment of $250,000 in front of his nose right after the impoverished American had lost his job did he agree to join, and then the FBI swooped in, arrested him, and touted their heroic efforts in stopping a terrorist plot.
The U.S. federal judge who sentenced Cromitie to decades in prison, Colleen McMahon, said she did so only because the law of “entrapment” is so narrow that it is virtually impossible for a defendant to win, but in doing so, she repeatedly condemned the FBI in the harshest terms for single-handedly converting Cromitie from a helpless but resentful anti-government fanatic into a criminal. The defendant “was incapable of committing an act of terrorism on his own,” she said, adding: “only the government could have made a terrorist out of Mr. Cromitie, whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in scope.” She added: “There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that James Cromitie could never have dreamed up the scenario in which he actually became involved.”
Her written ruling is worth quoting at length because of how relevant it is to current FBI activities. The judge began by noting that Cromitie “had successfully resisted going too far for eight months,” and agreed only after “the Government dangled what had to be almost irresistible temptation in front of an impoverished man from what I have come (after literally dozens of cases) to view as the saddest and most dysfunctional community in the Southern District of New York.” It was the FBI’s own informant, she wrote, who “was the prime mover and instigator of all the criminal activity that occurred.” She then wrote (emphasis added):
The Government indisputably “manufactured” the crimes of which defendants stand convicted. The Government invented all of the details of the scheme – many of them, such as the trip to Connecticut and the inclusion of Stewart AFB as a target, for specific legal purposes of which the defendants could not possibly have been aware (the former gave rise to federal jurisdiction and the latter mandated a twenty-five year minimum sentence). The Government selected the targets. The Government designed and built the phony ordnance that the defendants planted (or planned to plant) at Government-selected targets. The Government provided every item used in the plot: cameras, cell phones, cars, maps and even a gun. The Government did all the driving (as none of the defendants had a car or a driver’s license). The Government funded the entire project. And the Government, through its agent, offered the defendants large sums of money, contingent on their participation in the heinous scheme.
Additionally, before deciding that the defendants (particularly Cromitie, who was in their sights for nine months) presented any real danger, the Government appears to have done minimal due diligence, relying instead on reports from its Confidential Informant, who passed on information about Cromitie information that could easily have been verified (or not verified, since much of it was untrue), but that no one thought it necessary to check before offering a jihadist opportunity to a man who had no contact with any extremist groups and no history of anything other than drug crimes.
One of the reporters who has most extensively covered the FBI’s role in manufacturing terrorism cases it then proceeds to “break up” is Trevor Aaronson. In 2011, he documented, working with the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California-Berkeley, that of 508 post-9/11 terrorism defendants, “nearly half the prosecutions involved the use of informants, many of them incentivized by money.” After 9/11, the FBI’s budget-increasing, power-enhancing strategy was to target “tens of thousands of law-abiding people, seeking to identify those disgruntled few who might participate in a plot given the means and the opportunity” by monitoring their social media postings, and “then, in case after case, the government provides the plot, the means, and the opportunity.” Of the terrorism arrests from sting operations, almost 1/3 were ones in which “defendants participated in plots led by an agent provocateur—an FBI operative instigating terrorist action.”
It is this long history and mountain of evidence that compels an investigation into the role played by the FBI in the planning of the 1/6 riot at the Capitol. And it is that same evidence that made the corporate media’s derisive reaction to such demands — as voiced by Darren Beattie’s Revolver News, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson and myself — so ignorant and subservient. They acted as if only some unhinged conspiracy theorist could possibly believe that the FBI would have informants and agents embedded in the groups that planned that Capitol riot rather than what it is: the only logical conclusion for anyone who knows how the FBI actually behaves.
Indeed, the BuzzFeed reporters who investigated the FBI’s key role in the Michigan case must have been very disturbed by what they found since they used their reporting to raise that taboo topic: what role did the FBI have in 1/6? Moreover, they asked, is this yet another era where the FBI is targeting Americans not for criminality but for their political views, and then orchestrating their own plots that justify the U.S. security state’s massive budget and unlimited powers?
Instead, [the accused] say, they were targeted because of their political views. Some describe the case as a premeditated campaign by the government to undermine the Patriot movement, an ideology based on fealty to the Second Amendment and the conviction that the government has violated the Constitution and is therefore illegitimate. They argue that the recordings and text messages that the government calls proof of a criminal conspiracy are in fact constitutionally protected speech — expressions of frustration at what they see as the government’s betrayal of its citizens.
The Michigan case is unfolding at another fraught moment in American history. In court, the government has drawn a direct line between the alleged kidnapping plot and the Jan. 6 insurrection, holding up the storming of the US Capitol as evidence that the Michigan defendants posed a profound threat. . . . [I]f the defense is able to undermine the methods used to build the Michigan case, it could add weight to the theory that the administration is conducting a witch hunt against militant groups — and, by extension, that the Jan. 6 insurrection was a black op engineered by the FBI.
When Carlson raised these same questions on his Fox program, he did what I did when doing so: cited my reporting as well as Trevor Aaronson’s about the FBI’s long history of orchestrating such plots and luring people into them using informants and undercover agents. Much of that reporting about the FBI’s tactics was published by The Intercept, which — when aimed at American Muslims during the First War on Terror — had an editorial view that it was extremely improper and dangerous for the FBI to do this. But now that it is being done to American anti-government activists on the right, the site’s liberal editors seem happy about it. They got Aaronson to write an article under the headline “Tucker Carlson Distorted My Reporting in His Latest Jan. 6 Conspiracy Theory.”
But that headline was an absolute lie. There was nothing in Aaronson’s article that pointed to any “distortions” in how Carlson (or I) cited Aaronson’s work. To the contrary, Aaronson himself acknowledged that the FBI’s past history — including in the Whitmer case — made such questions highly rational and necessary:
In many of these stings, informants or undercover agents provided all the money and weapons for terrorist plots, and sometimes even the ideas — raising significant questions about whether any of these people would have committed the crimes were it not for the FBI’s encouragement. Many targets of these FBI stings were mentally ill or otherwise easily manipulated. . . .
Carlson’s claim fits an existing and well-established argument: that the FBI creates crimes through aggressive stings where no crimes would otherwise exist. . . . I think it’s worth noting that there’s a reason for the cultural stickiness of the claim by Revolver and Carlson. It might be a conspiracy theory, but it’s not exactly “baseless,” as the Post described it. That’s because there are genuine concerns that the sting tactics used over the past two decades against impressionable Muslims will be used against equally impressionable Americans with right-wing ideologies. In the supposed plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, for example, FBI agents and an informant played significant roles, raising the same question that surrounds so many supposed Islamic State and Al Qaeda cases in the United States: Would this plot have happened were it not for the FBI?
In addition, there is evidence the FBI is assigning informants to infiltrate groups based solely on right-wing ideology. And the increase in right-wing violence in recent years has prompted calls for new anti-terorrism laws that would give the FBI even more power.
I think the FBI’s investigation of potential right-wing threats, and the degree to which the bureau replicates its abusive post-9/11 tactics, will be a critically important story in the coming years. How news organizations report on it will be a significant test.
While Aaronson insists that no proof has yet been presented that the FBI had foreknowledge of the 1/6 plot or encouraged it to happen, and also seized on a minor error in the Revolver News article originally raising these questions about “confidential informants” — an error I noted in my own article about this topic while explaining that it was ancillary and insignificant to the overall question — Aaronson’s article has far more in common with the primary theme raised by Carlson than it does arguments that Carlson “distorted” anything. In particular, Aaronson writes, the FBI’s ample history requires a serious investigation into the role it may have played in knowing about and/or encouraging the 1/6 plotters.
As I documented in my own reporting on this question, there is ample evidence to believe that the FBI had informants embedded in at least two of three key groups it says were behind the 1/6 Capitol riot. As I noted at the time, most of the corporate press spewed contempt and scorn on these questions because 1/6 has become an event that carries virtually religious importance to them, and their reverence for the U.S. security state makes them resistant to any suggestions that the FBI may have acted deceitfully — an utterly bizarre mindset for U.S. journalists to possess. But such is the state of the liberal sector of the corporate press today.
Now that one of their own liberal members in good standing — BuzzFeed — has not only proven the FBI’s key role in the Whitmer plot but also themselves suggested that it makes more plausible the bureau’s involvement in 1/6, these questions are becoming increasingly unavoidable. Both the Whitmer plot and especially 1/6 are absolutely crucial to everything that has happened since: the launch of the new War on Terror, billions more in funds for the security state, proposals for greater surveillance, Biden’s use of the intelligence community to insist that anti-government activists constitute the greatest threat to U.S. national security. Asking what role the FBI played in the episode at the Capitol is not only rational but imperative.
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