FBI Director Christopher Wray testified on Tuesday during a Senate hearing that employees involved with drafting a controversial memo targeting certain Catholics had been “admonished,” an answer that dissatisfied Republican lawmakers.
Wray’s remark came as Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) grilled the director over his response to the memo, which the FBI’s Richmond, Virginia, office distributed internally in January and then retracted in February after facing backlash when a whistleblower made it public.
“Did you fire the people who wrote it?” Hawley asked.
“No—” Wray began before Hawley interjected and asked if Wray had fired “anybody involved in it.”
Wray responded, “The individuals involved in that product were not found to have engaged in any intentional or bad faith conduct.”
Hawley repeatedly interrupted to ask about firings, leading Wray to respond, “Those individuals have all been admonished, and … it is all going into their annual performance reviews, which has a direct impact on their compensation, among other things.”
Hawley’s heated line of questioning came after the House Judiciary Committee released a 30-page report on Monday detailing its investigation into the Richmond office’s controversial memo.
The memo, which the committee published in redacted form in August, served as a “threat assessment” of “radical-traditionalist Catholics.” It sought to establish a pattern of violent extremism among that group of Catholics and used an unnamed analyst’s definition to define them as those who opposed modern-day popes, held “extremist ideological beliefs,” and “engaged in violent rhetoric.”
The FBI cited three examples of real-life criminal suspects in the memo to illustrate its point.
Religious freedom advocates have denounced the memo as a possible First Amendment violation and a smear against the millions of Catholics in the United States.
The House Judiciary Committee said it subpoenaed hundreds of pages of documents and interviewed the head of the Richmond office as part of its investigation into it.
The committee found that the memo had been made available in an “FBI-wide system” and that no one in the FBI appeared to take issue with it before it became public despite the memo undergoing a peer-review process, a lawyer reviewing it, and supervisors approving it.
Citing an anonymous whistleblower, the committee also alleged that “not only did the FBI propose to develop sources [in churches], but it already interviewed a priest and choir director affiliated with a Catholic church in Richmond, Virginia for the memorandum.”
The Washington Examiner verified that the FBI did indeed interview the two church leaders and found that the interviews were conducted as part of an investigation into one of the three criminal suspects cited in the memo. That suspect had been arrested and was found in possession of Molotov cocktails, a smoke grenade, smoke bombs, and firearm parts.
After Hawley’s questioning, the FBI issued a statement Tuesday confirming that it conducted the priest and choir director interviews “during an investigation of an individual threatening violence who has since been arrested. The interviews were not conducted for the [memo] as characterized by the report.”
The FBI reiterated that it agreed the memo did not meet FBI standards and that an internal review “found no malicious intent to target Catholics or members of any other religious faith.”
“The FBI is committed to upholding the constitutional rights of all Americans and we do not conduct investigations based solely on First Amendment protected activity, including religious practices. The FBI investigates violence, threats of violence, and violations of federal law,” the bureau said.
CatholicVote President Brian Burch noted the memo included data garnered from field offices in other states, and he raised concerns about “how far and wide” the work had extended.
“Despite every effort to downplay the significance of this abuse of power, the FBI still owes Catholics and all concerned Americans answers as to who was behind the effort to spy on Catholics, how far and wide this effort went inside the FBI, whether it is ongoing, and whether anyone has been held accountable,” Burch said.
A House Judiciary Committee spokesman clarified Tuesday, “The evidence shows that the Richmond Field Office conducted the interviews of a priest and choir director as part of an investigation that served as a basis for the creation of the Catholic memo.”
The spokesman noted that “whistleblowers have told us that the memo was distributed around the country. … The FBI’s actions are inexcusable here, period.”