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FBI used undercover agent to investigate Catholics, says weaponization committee chairman

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A new document revealed that the Richmond Federal Bureau of Investigation used at least one undercover agent to obtain information about traditionalist Catholics, said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who chairs the House Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government.

In response to its inquiry, the committee announced it received from the FBI a heavily redacted 18-page document that uncovered limited information about the agency’s efforts to investigate a supposed link between traditionalist Catholics and “the far-right white nationalist movement.” 

The committee had requested information following the leak of an internal memo dated Jan. 23 that originated from the FBI’s Richmond division. The memo, which the FBI later retracted, called for such investigations within traditionalist Catholic communities. 

Titled “Interest of Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremists in Radical-Traditionalist Catholic Ideology Almost Certainly Presents New Mitigation Opportunities,” the memo singles out Catholics who are interested in the Traditional Latin Mass as potentially linked to violent extremist groups.

Because much of the information in the memo was redacted, Jordan subpoenaed the FBI for the full documentation along with documentation about activities that would subject religious organizations to FBI investigations.

While the excerpts from the document that were released to the public do not specifically mention an undercover agent, Jordan said they offered proof that such an operation took place.

“We now know the FBI relied on at least one undercover agent to produce its analysis [of the purported link],” Jordan said in the letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray that accompanied his subpoena for documents.

Jordan said the document also shows the agency intended to use local religious organizations as “new avenues for tripwire and source development.” In his letter to Wray, he said that the document reveals instances in which the FBI planned to engage in outreach to “mainline Catholic parishes” and “diocesan leadership” as well as contact the leadership of the Society of St. Pius X, which holds an irregular canonical status within the Catholic Church.

Jordan included this excerpt from the redacted FBI document:

“In addition to [redaction], engage in outreach to the leadership of other [Society of St. Pius X] chapels in the FBI Richmond [area of responsibility] to sensitize these congregations to the warning signs of radicalization and to enlist their assistance to serve as suspicious activity tripwires.”

Jordan said the document reveals that the contents were reviewed and approved by two senior intelligence analysts and the local Chief Division Counsel at the FBI. 

Jordan’s office did not respond to CNA’s request for comment in time for publication.

In his March 8 testimony, the FBI director told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that the leaked memo from the bureau’s Richmond division did not reflect the FBI’s exacting standards and he was “aghast” when he learned about it. The memo contains similar language about tripwires and source development but did not indicate that it had already used intelligence gathered by an undercover agent. 

“We do not conduct investigations based on religious affiliation or practices, full stop,” Wray said. “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.”

In his letter to Wray, Jordan called the newly released information “shocking.” 

“This information is outrageous and only reinforces the committee’s need for all FBI material responsive to our request,” Jordan wrote.

“The documents produced to date show how the FBI sought to enlist Catholic houses of worship as potential sources to monitor and report on their parishioners,” Jordan continued. “Americans attend church to worship and congregate for their spiritual and personal betterment. They must be free to exercise their fundamental First Amendment rights without worrying that the FBI may have planted so-called ‘tripwire’ sources or other informants in their houses of worship.”

Jordan added that a lot of information is still “unclear,” such as “how many FBI employees explored ‘new avenues for tripwire and source development’ in Catholic houses of worship across the country as a result of the FBI’s Richmond document.”

The FBI declined to comment on the new information revealed in the document but told CNA that it has received the subpoena and intends to cooperate with the subcommittee.

“The FBI recognizes the importance of congressional oversight and remains fully committed to cooperating with Congress’ oversight requests consistent with its constitutional and statutory responsibilities,” the statement read. “The FBI is actively working to respond to congressional requests for information — including voluntary production of documents.”

In February, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin demanded full transparency from the FBI memo that targeted Catholics in the Richmond Diocese. Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares joined a letter with 19 other state attorneys general that requested the FBI provide all documents related to the production of the memo. 

The memo was also condemned by Richmond Bishop Barry Knestout. 

“People of all faith groups have long found refuge in the constitutional protections of our great nation,” the bishop’s statement read in part. “We all seek to share in God’s gift of life, enjoy the fruits of liberty that our nation offers, and assist one another in ensuring the common good.”

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