FIRST ON THE DAILY SIGNAL—Two parishioners at a Latin Mass Catholic church in rural Northern Virginia say they witnessed suspicious activity from what looked like FBI vehicles in February, a month after the FBI’s Richmond office published a now-rescinded internal memo focused on “radical-traditional Catholics.”
The FBI’s Washington, D.C., office, which monitors the church’s area, denied any knowledge of such activity in a statement to The Daily Signal.
The two witnesses told The Daily Signal that they saw two cars approach the church, drive through the parking lot as if they were writing down license plate numbers, and then leave, on two separate instances outside Immaculate Heart of Mary Chapel in Linden, Virginia, some 63 miles west of Washington, D.C., between Feb. 12 and Feb. 26. (The memo had been published on Jan. 23 and rescinded on Feb. 9.)
“I saw a black Ford car with dark tinted windows and a knoblike antenna on the top,” one parishioner, who spoke on the condition on anonymity, told The Daily Signal. “It was driving very slowly by all the cars, and I could see a laptop in the center front.”
“I could not see the person inside, and no one ever got out,” the witness added. “They did leave as soon as they saw me looking at them.”
“I saw a white [Chevrolet] Tahoe car, with very tinted windows and lots of antennas, driving slowly through the parking lot,” the other witness told The Daily Signal, also speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Looked like a male. He had an open laptop in the middle of the car, not sure if he was typing, as the window was very dark.”
“He never got out of the car, but by the time I saw him, he was on his way out, and drove back towards the highway after pulling through,” the second parishioner added. “Not sure how long he was out there, as we were all inside. Everyone else was still inside the chapel, so he must have been going around while we were all inside at Mass/catechism.”
“I suspect that it was the FBI,” the witness added. “However, I could not confirm, since he never got out of the car.”
The witnesses reached out to The Heritage Foundation’s Oversight Project, which connected them with The Daily Signal. (The Daily Signal is The Heritage Foundation’s media outlet.)
Sacred Heart of Mary Chapel is affiliated with the Society of Saint Pius X, a traditional international priestly society that comprises almost 700 priests and supports the Latin Mass.
“The Washington Field Office is not aware of that activity,” the FBI national office, speaking on behalf of its satellite location in D.C., told The Daily Signal in an emailed statement Friday.
The incidents took place about a month after the FBI published an internal memo urging agents to develop “sources with access,” including in “places of worship,” to probe an alleged relationship between “racially or ethnically motivated, violent extremists” and “radical-traditional Catholic ideology.” The memo, dated Jan. 23, cited the Southern Poverty Law Center, a left-leaning litigation nonprofit infamous for branding mainstream conservative and Christian organizations “hate groups,” placing them on a map alongside chapters of the Ku Klux Klan.
After a whistleblower published the memo on Feb. 8, the FBI’s national office rescinded it on Feb. 9.
“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 at the time.
“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. “The FBI is committed to sound analytic tradecraft and to investigating and preventing acts of violence and other crimes, while upholding the constitutional rights of all Americans and will never conduct investigative activities or open an investigation based solely on First Amendment-protected activity.”
The FBI national office directed The Daily Signal to remarks from FBI Director Christopher Wray on March 8 before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“Well, first, let me say that when I first learned of the piece, I was aghast,” Wray said at the time. “And we took steps immediately to withdraw it and remove it from FBI systems. It does not reflect FBI standards.”
“We do not conduct investigations based on religious affiliation or practices, full stop,” the director added. “We have also now ordered our inspection division to take a look at how this happened and try to figure out how we can make sure something like this doesn’t happen again. I will note, it was a product by one field office, which of course we have scores and scores of these products, and when we found out about it, we took action.”
“We do not and will not target people for religious beliefs, and we do not and will not monitor people’s religious practices,” he added. “That’s not acceptable.”
The FBI statements have not addressed why the memo cited the Southern Poverty Law Center. 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.
In 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he ordered the Justice Department—of which the FBI is a part—not to partner with groups that “discriminate.” Speaking of the SPLC, Sessions pledged that the Justice Department would not “partner with groups that unfairly defame Americans for standing up for the Constitution or their faith.”
Kyle Seraphin, the former FBI agent who leaked the memo, joined other FBI sources in telling The Daily Signal that the FBI had previously trained analysts not to cite the SPLC.
The Front Royal Police Department, which covers Linden, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the incidents.
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