No Bias Found in F.B.I. Report on Catholic Extremists

An FBI memo warning of potential threats posed by Catholic “traditional extremists” violated professional standards but showed “no evidence of malicious intent,” according to an internal Justice Department investigation made public Thursday.

Republicans The 11-page memo was seized, which was leaked early last year, as a talking point. They pointed to the document to harshly criticize the office and suggested, without evidence, that it was part of a broader campaign by the Biden administration to persecute Catholics and conservatives for their beliefs.

The memo was quickly withdrawn after it was leaked, and senior law enforcement officials repeatedly distanced themselves from it.

The Justice Department watchdog’s assessment found that FBI agents in Richmond, Virginia, inappropriately conflated activists’ religious beliefs with their potential involvement in domestic terrorism, making it appear as if they were being targeted because of faith.

But after a 120-day incident review By order of Congress, Michael Horowitz, the department’s inspector general – drawing from the FBI report and interviews conducted by his investigators – found no evidence that “anyone ordered or directed” anyone to investigate Catholics because of their religion.

An FBI statement on Thursday said the inspector general’s review was consistent with the bureau’s own calculations.

“The FBI said multiple times that the intelligence product did not meet our stringent standards and it was quickly removed from the FBI’s systems,” she added. “We also said that there was no intention or action taken to investigate Catholics or anyone on the basis of religion.”

The FBI memo, drafted by an analyst in the Richmond office in late 2022 and completed with other authors in January 2023, cited potential threats from Catholic extremists and “far-right white nationalists” in the lead-up to the 2024 election.

The authors wrote that the overlap between these groups presented new opportunities to “mitigate the threat,” develop covert sources and “explore new avenues of tripwires” — a reference to the early warning system for domestic terrorism.

The memo, known as an outreach product, was written to office leaders and is intended to forecast potential activity rather than provide a strict factual assessment. Similar memos were drafted after Virginia legalized online sports betting to determine its impact on money laundering and other criminal activity.

“Although there was no evidence of malicious intent or improper purpose, the memo failed to adhere to standards of analytical craft and demonstrated errors in professional judgment,” Horowitz wrote.

After the memo was issued, FBI Director Christopher Wray tightened approval requirements for such reports and formally censured employees involved in the case.

The Richmond memo was prompted by the department’s investigation into a Henrico County resident who, according to the memo, described himself as an “extremist traditionalist fascist Catholic clergyman,” illegally collected weapons, and had a history of making violent threats against liberals and racists. Minorities and Jews, and they seemed to be preparing to launch some kind of domestic terrorist attack.

The man’s identity has not been determined, but the dates and details of the case match those contained in the case file for Javier Lopez, who was indicted on federal weapons charges last June. He pleaded guilty last month and has not yet been sentenced. A call to Mr. Lopez’s attorney was not immediately returned.

The FBI’s investigation into Mr. Lopez included an examination of his interactions with members of the conservative Catholic church he attended, which was not affiliated with the local diocese.

The office found a confidential informant in the group to befriend the man and determine whether he was trying to recruit other members to “carry out an attack,” the inspector general found. The FBI decided to deploy the informant because it was the only possible opportunity to establish regular contact with Mr. Lopez.

The informant was under strict orders to collect information only about the target, and not about the church or other parishioners, according to the inspector general.

The Richmond office contacted officials in the Domestic Terrorism Section at FBI National Headquarters in Washington to discuss preparing a report for the bureau’s senior leaders.

An analyst at headquarters responded that she was “really concerned about renewed interest in the Catholic Church” among people identified as domestic violent extremists — but the effort was dropped when the memo was made public, the inspector general found.

in Campaign speechesformer President Donald J. Trump accused the administration of “violently and viciously pursuing Catholics,” without specifically referring to the memo.

Republicans, led by Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Senator Charles E. Grassley, who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, fielded answers from Mr. Wray and other Justice Department officials.

In a statement, Mr. Grassley said the report left some important questions unanswered, including the office’s decision to delete files associated with the memo.

In April 2023, Mr. Jordan threatened to subpoena Mr. Wray if he did not respond to questions about the memo. This proved unnecessary.

“The FBI suggested that its agents engage in outreach with Catholic dioceses to develop sources among clergy and church leadership to report on Americans who practice their faith.” Mr. Jordan said on time.

In a Controversial hearing Before Mr. Jordan’s commission in July, Mr. Wray strongly rejected the claim that the office targeted Catholics. He described himself as horrified after seeing the memo, and ordered the document deleted from the FBI’s system and ordered an internal review.

Seamus Hughes Contributed to reports.

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