FIRST ON THE DAILY SIGNAL—The Daily Signal filed a Freedom of Information Act request this week demanding that the FBI turn over all documents related to “radical traditional Catholics” and the Southern Poverty Law Center, as news broke that the FBI had published an internal memo about “radical traditional Catholics” citing the SPLC, which brands mainstream conservative and Christian nonprofits “hate groups,” putting them on a map with the Ku Klux Klan.
Although the FBI has since rescinded the memo, the FOIA request, submitted by the Heritage Oversight Project on behalf of The Daily Signal, should turn up related documents and shine more light on the situation.
FBI whistleblower Kyle Seraphin, who published the memo on UncoverDC.com Wednesday, had teased the release on Twitter: “Wait just a moment: the @FBI is writing intel products about ‘radical traditional Catholics’ (RTCs) and disseminating that that [sic] some Catholic Churches are a platform to promote violence?!”
“Because the FBI is Constitutionally prohibited from defining, issuing judgements on, or investigating non-violent religious practice and religious groups, the reported FBI intelligence product(s) suggest that the FBI is in possession of evidence that a nebulously ill-defined group of Catholics, to include some Catholic churches, have engaged in acts that fall within the elements of domestic terrorism violations of the United States Code,” Mike Howell, a senior adviser and investigative columnist at The Daily Signal, wrote in the FOIA request.
“Otherwise, it appears the FBI would not have undertaken any such analysis for a valid purpose,” Howell added.
The FOIA demands all documents with the terms “Southern Poverty Law Center” and “Catholic”; “SPLC” and “Catholic”; “traditional Catholic”; “RTC”; “Latin Mass” and “extremist”; and more.
The Daily Signal filed the FOIA on Wednesday, around the time that Seraphin, the FBI whistleblower, published the document he had earlier teased on Twitter.
The document, “Interest of Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremists in Radical Traditionalist Catholic Ideology Almost Certainly Presents New Mitigation Opportunities,” characterizes RTCs by “the rejection of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) as a valid church council; disdain for most of the popes elected since Vatican II, particularly Pope Francis and Pope John Paul II; and frequent adherence to anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ, and white supremacist ideology.”
The memo suggests that the FBI should monitor these Catholics through “the development of sources with access,” including in “places of worship,” and it cites a list of “hate groups” published by the SPLC.
As I explain in my book “Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center,” the SPLC took the program it used to bankrupt organizations associated with the Ku Klux Klan and weaponized it against conservative groups, partially to scare donors into ponying up cash and partially to silence ideological opponents.
After the SPLC fired its co-founder amid a racial discrimination and sexual harassment scandal in 2019, a former staffer claimed that the SPLC’s accusations of “hate” are a “cynical fundraising scam” aimed at “bilking northern liberals.” Critics across the political spectrum have voiced opposition and alarm at the organization’s hate group smears.
In 2012, a terrorist targeted the Family Research Council’s headquarters in the nation’s capital, entering the lobby with a semiautomatic pistol and then shooting and wounding a guard. The man told the FBI that he found the conservative organization on the SPLC’s “hate map” and intended to kill everyone in the building. That man pleaded guilty to committing an act of terror and received a 25-year prison sentence. The SPLC condemned the attack, but has kept the Family Research Council on its hate map ever since.
After The Daily Signal reached out to the FBI for comment on the document Wednesday, the FBI responded with a rare public retraction.
“While our standard practice is to not comment on specific intelligence products, this particular field office product—disseminated only within the FBI—regarding racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism does not meet the exacting standards of the FBI,” the FBI told The Daily Signal in a statement emailed Thursday.
“Upon learning of the document, FBI Headquarters quickly began taking action to remove the document from FBI systems and conduct a review of the basis for the document,” the bureau added.
Current and former FBI sources told The Daily Signal that the FBI has long considered the SPLC unreliable. “We got briefings that SPLC was not legitimate when I was at Quantico,” said Seraphin, the FBI whistleblower who released the memo.
George Hill, whose 11 years at the bureau included a stint as a supervisory intelligence analyst, called the memo “poorly sourced from sources who use unsubstantiated data to draw their own conclusions and not in compliance with FBI publication guidelines.” He said the Directorate of Intelligence released guidelines barring analysts from relying on the SPLC.
The Daily Signal FOIA may turn up documents revealing whether the FBI rejected that guidance and why. It may also reveal what led the FBI’s Richmond office to focus on traditional Catholics and whether any agents actually infiltrated Catholic churches.
On Friday, Virginia Republican Attorney General Jason Miyares and 19 other state attorneys general sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI Director Christopher Wray, demanding that the Department of Justice and FBI “desist from investigating and surveilling Americans who have done nothing more than exercise their natural and constitutional right to practice their religion in a manner of their choosing.”
The attorneys general threatened legal action otherwise, promising to “take all lawful and appropriate means to protect the rights of our constituents as guaranteed by our Constitution.”
The attorneys general demanded that the DOJ release the full report, produce any documentation used in drafting it, produce any supporting documents and investigate how the report was drafted, and divulge whether the FBI has been using operatives to infiltrate houses of worship.
“Virginia has always protected our inalienable right to worship freely—without interference or intimidation,” Miyares told The Daily Signal in a statement Friday. “The leaked anti-Catholic FBI memo from our state capital that labeled Catholic Virginians as ‘violent extremists’ because of their religious beliefs is simply un-American and the suggestion that agents should recruit Catholics to spy on their fellow parishioners is just wrong.”
“Virginians should not and will not be targeted by their government because of their religious beliefs,” he added.
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