Eight Republican senators are demanding answers from the FBI as the bureau continues to stonewall investigations into the Richmond, Virginia, office’s January memo citing the Southern Poverty Law Center to target “radical traditional Catholic hate groups” for surveillance.
“The U.S. Constitution protects the right not just to have a faith but to live your faith as well, and the FBI’s decision to label traditional Catholics as ‘extremists’ is a violation of that First Amendment right,” Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., told The Daily Signal in a statement Tuesday. “It is unacceptable that the FBI is hiding the truth about how many offices and agents were involved in drafting its unconstitutional memo.”
“I refuse to let this blatant faith-based targeting continue,” the senator added.
Lankford joined seven of his fellow Senate Republicans in sending a letter to FBI Director Chris Wray Thursday. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, led the letter.
“Director Wray needs to shoot straight with Congress and the American people by providing a full explanation about the origin of this outrageous memo and his congressional testimony,” Grassley told The Daily Signal in a statement Wednesday. “My colleagues and I won’t allow the FBI to pull the wool over Congress’s eyes while public faith in the agency continues to erode.”
“We have seen one public example after another of the strong arm of federal law enforcement weaponized against ordinary Americans,” senators wrote in the letter. “Targeting Americans because of their ideas or political affiliations is always wrong and an abuse of the FBI’s power, but it’s especially alarming when it threatens the fundamental rights guaranteed in our Constitution, including the free exercise of religion.”
In January, the FBI’s Richmond office circulated a memo urging agents to probe the supposed nexus between “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists” and “radical-traditional Catholics,” citing the SPLC and including a list of SPLC-designated “hate groups” for agents to target.
The FBI told The Daily Signal in February that it was rescinding the memo after FBI whistleblower Kyle Seraphin published it on UncoverDC.com on Feb. 8. The national FBI office claimed that the memo “does not meet the exacting standards of the FBI” and promised to remove the document from its systems and “conduct a review of the basis for the document,” but it refused to answer further questions about the move.
As I explain in my book “Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center,” the SPLC took the program it has used to bankrupt organizations associated with the Ku Klux Klan and weaponized it against conservative groups, partially to scare its donors into ponying up cash and partially to silence ideological opponents. The SPLC places conservative groups on a “hate map” with KKK chapters.
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.
A terrorist even targeted an SPLC-designated “hate group” in Washington, D.C., in 2012, and he told the FBI he used the “hate map” to find his target. The SPLC condemned that act of terror, but kept the target on the list and the map.
The SPLC has also suggested that the Catholic Church itself holds a position on human sexuality that would qualify it as a “hate group.”
Grassley and his fellow senators expressed frustration about the FBI’s reticence to reveal how the memo came into existence.
“As we have expressed to you previously, the FBI’s memo from the Bureau’s Richmond, Virginia, Field Office inappropriately, and without evidence, relied upon blatantly biased and discredited sources to tie Catholic Christians to violent extremism based largely on their conservative political views on issues like ‘abortion rights, immigration, affirmative action, and LGBTQ protections,’” the senators wrote.
“Upon its release, we were pleased by the FBI’s swift and firm disavowal of that memo and its contents and were led to believe it was an isolated incident,” they added. Yet even though Wray testified that the memo was “a product by one field office,” the House Judiciary Committee revealed that previously-redacted sections of the memo cited work from other field offices, leading to accusations that Wray lied under oath.
The FBI contested that claim at the time.
“While the document referred to information from other field office investigations of Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremist (RMVE) subjects, that does not change the fact the product was produced by a single office,” the national office told The Daily Signal.
The senators noted that the FBI has promised to brief members of the House and Senate on its internal review of the memo’s origins, but the House Judiciary Committee revealed that “such a briefing could have happened much earlier.”
“Although the FBI quickly disavowed the report and explained that it did not meet FBI’s standards, six months after the fact, information continues to reach Congress in trickles, member and staff inquiries are ignored, and the information that has come to light conflicts with the FBI’s original assurances that the report was limited in scope,” Grassley and his fellow senators wrote.
The senators asked Wray to “provide immediate explanation with respect to your potentially-misleading testimony before Congress, as well as a full explanation of information that came to light during the internal review.” They also demanded an explanation of the FBI’s “failure to produce information we requested that did not rely upon completion of the FBI internal review” and that the FBI hand over all documents it provided to the House on the matter.
The senators demanded answers by Sept. 7.
Six Republican senators joined Lankford and Grassley on the letter: Utah’s Mike Lee, Texas’ Ted Cruz, Tennessee’s Marsha Blackburn, Indiana’s Mike Braun, Missouri’s Josh Hawley, and Florida’s Rick Scott.
Correction: The original version of this article misstated which senator led the letter.
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