Bombshell FOIA request shows FBI scrambled to address FBI spying on Catholics after memo leaked from agency

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WASHINGTON, DC - A press release from Judicial Watch announced that they, along with CatholicVote Civic Action, received 131 heavily redacted pages of records from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request showing top officials attempting to craft a public response to the FBI’s intelligence memo showing the agency was targeting Catholics. 

In March 2023, Judicial Watch and CatholicVote Civic Acton requested records centering around an FBI intelligence memo that targeted “radical traditionalist” Catholics. After receiving no information, the two entities filed a lawsuit against the FBI and Department of Justice, demanding the release of the records. 

The memo was leaked in February 2023 and showed the FBI was targeting Catholics who adhere to traditional beliefs on abortion and other cultural issues. The Catholic News Agency reported at the time, “The leaked document has been condemned by several federal and state officials, as well as clergy, including Bishop Barry Knestout of the Diocese of Richmond, who recently called the memo a ‘threat to religious liberty.’” 

Included in the records is a February 8, 2023 email with the subject line “Media Request: FBI Richmond Document cites SPLC” from the FBI’s National Press Office alerting FBI officials regarding possible media inquiries: 

"We have inquiries from the Washington Examiner and The Daily Signal (Heritage Foundation) about an article written by [redacted]. It references a January intelligence product from the Richmond Field Office. After speaking with SC Goodwater, I am alerting all of you so we can get a copy of the actual document and hear any recommendations on how to respond. I am attaching a cut and paste of the [redacted] article." 

The email was forwarded to other FBI officials by Miriam Coakley of the Office of General Counsel, where she noted, “Adding InTo [Insider Threat Office], SecD [Security Division], and OPR [Office of Professional Responsibility]. The date of the leaked domain perspective appears to be 23 Jan. 2023.” 

Later in the email chain, an official from the Office of Public Affairs forwards the email chain to additional people, saying, “Adding Pamela Bryon [Deputy Asst. Director of Intelligence Pamela Byron] from the DI. Any info on how this product came about would be appreciated.” 

In other words, the FBI was caught, and they were trying to find cover. 

Judicial Watch wrote that in a heavily redacted reply, Byron responded as follows: 

"As mentioned on FBINET, the type of product leaked is a Domain Perspective (DP)--the purpose of DPs is to offer information and/or highlight how a shift or new development in an AOR (domain) related to an environmental variable could impact the threat. Environmental variables include demographic shifts, technology development, economic conditions, special events, social/cultural conditions, etc.

"In particular, the analysis in DPs (as in FBI products in general) is focused on the activity of identified or potential threat actors, not on the environmental variables themselves, and how those threat actors react to shifts in the environment and the subsequent impact on the threat by those actors. 

"In that context, there are a couple of things to note with this situation: [redacted]. 

"We stand by to assist on any other questions." 

In addition, the records include a February 9, 2023 email with the subject line “Coordination of Draft statement regarding leaked RH intel document,” written by Office of Public Affairs official Douglas Goodwater to top FBI officials, including FBI Chief of Staff Jonathan Lenzner, Asst. Dir. for Intelligence Tonya Ugoretz, Asst. Dir. for Counterterrorism Robert Wells, and others: 

"Draft/pre-decision, Coordination for media statement–DI/CTD/)GC [Directorate of Intelligence/Counterterrorism Division/Office of General Counsel]

"Potential statement for review/edits-:[Redacted]

"Catherine Milhoan, Asst. Director for Public Affairs responds: 

"All we have received two new inquiries in addition to the three last night and are making the decision to respond in the next hour. We want to get our statement out before this picks up any steam. 

"DI/CTD/OCG, 

"Please review the draft and let us know if you have any edits or concerns." 

It appears as though the FBI did not want this memo to become available to the public. 

For example, later in the email chain, Stanley Meador, Special Agent in Charge of the Richmond Field Office, replied, “Looks good. One small suggestion in yellow. I would send it out. It is migrating onto Fox." 

February 10, 2023, FBI Chief of Staff Jonathan Lenzner emailed FBI colleagues with the subject line “intel piece that has been withdrawn,” writing in the body, “I don’t know if we are there yet, [redacted].” 

That was followed up again by Lenzner on February 13, writing, “Looks like at least one religious organization is speaking out publicly," citing a Washington Examiner piece. 

That led Ryan T. Young, Executive Assistant Director of the Intelligence Branch, to reply to Lenzner, “Not a good look…Real frustrating when it is self-inflicted. I’ll be back in town Wednesday. We can look into the next best steps.” 

In response to the release of the documents requested under FOIA, former Rep. Tim Huelskamp, Ph.D. (R-Kan.), Senior Advisor to CatholicVote, slammed the Biden administration and the FBI. 

“After seven months of delay and more to come, Joe Biden’s FBI remains committed to one thing: covering up their un-American spying on Catholic citizens,” Huelskamp said. “By fully withholding more than 200 pages of public documents, the Biden administration is more interested in hiding the truth than ending this unconstitutional witch hunt of Catholics and other faithful Americans.” 

Meanwhile, Tom Fitton, Judicial Watch president, likewise slammed the FBI. 

“The FBI launched a vicious spy effort against Catholics and sought to spy on parishioners as they sat in church pews,” Fitton said. “These records show top FBI officials were panicked in response about their domestic spying abuse leaking out.” 

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