FBI counterterrorism officials set up a special 'threat tag' to track school boards threats

FBI counterterrorism officials set up a special 'threat tag' to track school boards threats
Michael Reynolds/Pool via AP

In October a group called the National School Board Association (NSBA) sent a letter to President Biden suggesting that parents were becoming such a threat to school boards that the FBI needed to get involved and might even need to treat some of them as domestic terrorists under the Patriot Act. Just days after the White House received this letter, AG Merrick Garland sent out a memo ordering the FBI to communicate with every school board in the country over the following 30 days to assess the threat.

Garland was questioned about the memo by Sen. Ted Cruz and others who suggested it went too far in suggesting parents were a threat based on an NSBA letter which was later retracted after multiple state school board associations withdrew from the NSBA over the language used. But Garland refused to back away from his memo, suggesting that the language about treating parents as terrorists wasn’t in his memo, only in the NSBA letter that prompted his memo.

According to ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee Jim Jordan, an FBI whistleblower has revealed some of the steps the FBI’s counterterrorism division was taking behind the scenes in order to comply with AG Garland’s memo:

The Wall Street Journal has a story up about this:

The heads of the FBI’s criminal and counterterrorism divisions instructed agents in an Oct. 20 memo to flag all assessments and investigations into potentially criminal threats, harassment and intimidation of educators with a “threat tag,” which the officials said would allow them to evaluate the scope of the problem.

The internal email asks FBI agents to consider the motivation behind any criminal activity and whether it potentially violates federal law. Agents should tag such threats “EDUOFFICIALS” to better track them, according to the memo, which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

“The purpose of the threat tag is to help scope this threat on a national level, and provide an opportunity for comprehensive analysis of the threat picture for effective engagement with law enforcement partners at all levels,” says the email signed by Timothy Langan, the FBI’s assistant director for counterterrorism, and Calvin Shivers, the assistant director of the bureau’s criminal division, who retired this month.

The FBI released a statement about the memo saying, “The FBI has never been in the business of investigating parents who speak out or policing speech at school board meetings, and we are not going to start now.” But the whistleblower who released the memo suggested it could open a door for the bureau to start collecting information on parents.

I want to be careful not to overstate this because I think some people will go overboard with it and wind up undercutting their own case. Garland’s argument is that he’s not investigating parents, he’s just investigating violent threats. But the leaked memo (2nd tweet above) makes clear the goal here is to determine if there is some “federal nexus” or “potential federal violations” that the FBI can go after. So while it’s not as if they’re starting from the position that parents are domestic terrorists, they are having their counterterrorism branch flag potential cases to investigate the possibility that this is an organized campaign of threats and violence to promote an ideology, which sounds like just another way of saying domestic terrorism. They are at least open to the possibility that domestic terrorism is involved.

But on what basis would they believe that? The WSJ suggests there’s no clear reason to send the FBI out looking for troublemakers:

A senior Department of Homeland Security intelligence official, John Cohen, testified at the same hearing that while there were calls for violence directed at teachers and school-board members on extremist platforms, and reports of sporadic incidents of violence, state and local law enforcement told the agency that they weren’t seeing widespread action. “We’re continuing to work with state and locals to maintain awareness of the environment,” Mr. Cohen said.

Why did Garland launch such a massive, nationwide counterterrorism probe in the first place? His memo was clearly prompted by the NSBA letter but, as mentioned, that letter was so absurd it was withdrawn by the NSBA with an apology for the language it used. It contained about 20 examples of alleged threats, many of which were protected speech under the First Amendment. That was Sen. Cruz’s point when he questioned Garland, i.e. most of the examples in the letter were legal even if they were crude in some cases (like giving a Nazi salute because you think the board members are behaving like Nazis). I don’t think that’s particularly helpful but there’s absolutely no reason for law enforcement to be involved, much less the FBI literally trying to make a federal case out of it.

Based on what I see here, it looks to me like the FBI got way out over its skis on this. Garland can claim they were only going after signs of organized threats but there really doesn’t seem to be any good reason to do this in the first place except for that politicized letter to the White House. Garland should have rejected the contents of that letter and been more careful to avoid creating a chilling effect on the free speech of parents who are understandably upset with school boards, teachers unions and administrators.

Finally, the Washington Examiner is reporting that the Reps. Jim Jordan and Virginia Foxx are going after all communications between the DOJ, the White House and the NSBA in relation to the group’s letter. So maybe we’ll eventually find out where the pressure on AG Garland to launch this probe was coming from.

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