The chief law enforcement officers from 20 states signed a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland condemning a since-retracted “anti-Catholic” leaked internal memorandum produced by the FBI’s Richmond field office.

Published Feb. 8 by the website UncoverDC, the memo discusses launching an investigation into “radical-traditionalist” Catholics because of possible ties to “the far-right white nationalist movement.” 

The memo, titled “Interest of Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremists in Radical-Traditionalist Catholic Ideology Almost Certainly Presents New Mitigation Opportunities,” was dated Jan. 23 and was reportedly leaked by an FBI agent in the Richmond office. Its unnamed author singles out Catholics who are interested in the Traditional Latin Mass and are members of certain social media groups as presenting “new opportunities for threat mitigation.” 

The FBI confirmed to CNA on Feb. 9 that the document came from its Richmond field office and issued a statement retracting it. 

“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 statement reads.  

In their letter to the U.S. attorney general, the 20 state attorneys general, all of whom are Republicans, address their concerns about the memorandum:

“We write with outrage and alarm to address the anti-Catholic internal memorandum produced by the FBI’s Richmond Field Office on Jan. 23, 2023, which was released to the public this week. 

“The FBI must immediately and unequivocally order agency personnel not to target Americans based on their religious beliefs and practices. We also demand that the FBI produce publicly all materials relating to the memorandum and its production,” the letter said.

The material requested includes all documents implementing the report’s recommendations, a complete briefing of the process by which it was drafted, and information about whether the FBI is infiltrating houses of worship, among other things. 

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“The FBI’s scrubbing of the document from its systems and the purported ‘review’ of the process that created it in no way reassures us that this memorandum does not reflect a broader program of secretive surveillance of American Catholics or other religious adherents, and infiltration of their houses of worship,” the state attorneys general wrote. “It assures us only that the FBI is embarrassed at the public revelation of the memorandum’s contents.”

The letter further states that the attorneys general are “horrified” by the “anti-Catholic bigotry [that] appears to be festering in the FBI” and accused the agency of “treating Catholics as potential terrorists because of their beliefs.”

The signers of the letter expressed their concerns with the agency’s expressed intention to initiate investigations within churches that offer the Latin Mass and within “radical-traditionalist” Catholic online communities, as stated in the memo. 

The leaked memo specifically points to the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP) and the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) as potential points of contact for outreach. Both offer the Latin Mass within the Richmond FBI’s area of responsibility. 

“In other words,” the attorneys general wrote, “the memorandum proposes recruiting Catholics to enter a sacred house of worship, talk to their fellow Catholics, and report those conversations back to the FBI so that the federal government can keep tabs on the bad Catholics.” 

The coalition also criticized the FBI for citing the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of hate groups within the memo “apparently without any independent vetting from the FBI.” A footnote in the memo states that traditionalist Catholics are distinct from radical-traditionalist Catholics, but listed nine alleged radical-traditionalist Catholic groups, based solely on the SPLC’s list of “[radical-traditionalist Catholic] hate groups operating in the United States in 2021.” The SPLC has frequently faced accusations of bias from Christian and conservative organizations. 

Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares, the primary author of the letter, issued a statement Feb. 10 in which he said he would defend the religious freedom of Catholics in the commonwealth. 

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“Virginia is the birthplace of religious freedom and has a long history of protecting the inalienable right to live your faith free from government interference or intimidation,” Miyares wrote. 

“The leaked memo from our state capital’s FBI office is unacceptable, unconstitutional, and un-American. Frankly, it’s what I would expect from communist Cuba. As attorney general, I’m responsible for defending Virginians’ rights, and religious freedom is the bedrock of the Constitutions of the United States and of Virginia. Virginians should not and will not be labeled ‘violent extremists’ by their government because of how they worship or because of their beliefs.” 

The letter referred to “a dangerous tendency in the FBI and DOJ to label those who hold views contrary to the administration as violent extremists or terrorists.” 

It specifically cited Attorney General Garland’s October 2021 order for the FBI to address threats to school boards posed by parents and guardians whose protests “run counter to our nation’s core values.” The letter states that this is “an alarming trend that must be immediately curtailed.”

Last week, the Republican-created House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government held its first hearing to investigate alleged bias within federal agencies. The state attorneys general also sent this letter to the subcommittee chairman, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio.