The FBI used “threat tags” created by the bureau’s counterterrorism division to launch dozens of investigations into parents who had protested at school board meetings, whistleblowers disclosed.
The probes targeted parents who were reported on a new Justice Department “snitch line.”
The FBI investigations included a father opposed to mask mandates and a mother deemed a threat for “owning guns” and belonging to a group called “Moms for Liberty.”
The whistleblowers work for the FBI.
“You’ve got over two dozen cases that whistleblowers came to us about, that they had concerns on,” Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, told The Washington Times. “If that isn’t designed to chill speech, I don’t know what does.”
Mr. Jordan wrote a letter Wednesday to Attorney General Merrick Garland accusing the FBI of opening “at least dozens” of investigations into parents and others using the counterterrorism threat tag “in almost every region of the country and relating to all types of educational settings.”
Mr. Jordan also accused Mr. Garland of lying to Congress.
Mr. Garland testified in October that the Justice Department was not using counterterrorism statutes or resources to investigate parents who complained or protested at school board meetings.
“It sure looks like this was counterterrorism measures that were put into effect,” Mr. Jordan said in the interview Thursday.
A spokesman for Mr. Garland did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Mr. Jordan’s accusation or the whistleblower information.
Mr. Jordan said the FBI, by Oct. 20, had created the threat tag EDUOFFICIALS and directed that it be applied to “school board-related threats.”
One woman phoned in a complaint claiming a mother was a threat because she told the local school board “we are coming for you,” owned guns, and belonged to a “right-wing mom’s group.” The FBI interviewed the accused mother, who told agents she was upset about the mask mandate and wanted the school board to know they would be voted out of office.
The mother, who wants to remain anonymous, was “terrified” after the FBI called about the complaint, Moms for Liberty founder Tiffany Justice told The Times.
The mother has several children in elementary school and had spoken out at a fall school board meeting about lengthy COVID-related school closures.
Then the FBI called.
“She was asked about all kinds of things,” Ms. Justice told The Times. “From mental health to whether or not they owned firearms.”
Agents dropped the investigation after speaking to the mother.
“This is a mom who has been involved in her kids’ school,” Ms. Justice said. “She’s brought information and data and tried to hold the district accountable. To see a parent singled out like this, and then to hear that there are so many other parents it’s happening to across the country, is concerning.”
Another person phoned in a complaint that a father “fit the profile of an insurrectionist” because he “rails against the government,” “believes all conspiracy theories” and “has a lot of guns and threatens to use them.”
The person who phoned in the complaint couldn’t provide the FBI with any evidence that the father had made threats or committed a crime. He told agents he reported the father after hearing about the tip line.
An unidentified FBI field office opened an investigation into a group of Republican state elected officials after a state Democratic Party official called into the tip line. The Democrat said the Republican lawmakers “incited violence” by vocally opposing vaccine mandates for schools.
The investigations began after Mr. Garland sent an Oct. 4 memorandum to the FBI and U.S. attorney’s offices seeking to coordinate efforts to monitor “an increase in harassment, intimidation and threats of violence against school board members, teachers and workers in our nation’s public schools.”
Mr. Garland appeared to act in response to a Sept. 29 letter to President Biden from the National School Boards Association asking for “immediate assistance” to deal with “the growing number of threats of violence and acts of intimidation occurring across the nation.”
The NSBA said school boards and educators were under attack, often at heated public hearings and on social media, by angry parents opposed to mask mandates or “propaganda” that schools were teaching critical race theory.
The letter was signed by NSBA President Viola Garcia and interim Executive Director Chip Slaven and was written in coordination with White House officials.
Ms. Garcia and Mr. Slaven wrote in the letter that, because the threats to public school officials had escalated, “the classification of these heinous actions could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes.”
The two officials called on the federal government to use all the tools at its disposal, including the Patriot Act, a post-September 11 anti-terrorism surveillance tool, to investigate threats.
Mr. Garland responded quickly. As part of the monitoring program, he directed the Justice Department to open the National Threat Operations Center reporting line, which critics have dubbed a “snitch line.”
An intense backlash prompted NSBA officials weeks later to apologize for writing the letter. They also expressed regret for sending it to Mr. Biden.
Still, Mr. Garland appears to have kept open the reporting hotline and federal monitoring of suspected threats against education officials using the FBI‘s counterterrorism resources.
Mr. Jordan said “several” whistleblowers have revealed the call line yielded complaints about parents who voiced opposition to school boards, mask and vaccine mandates or appeared to be “right-wing” or “insurrectionist.”
“The information we have received shows how, as a direct result of your directive, federal law enforcement is using counterterrorism resources to investigate protected First Amendment activity,” Mr. Jordan said in the letter.
The letter was also signed by Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana, the top Republican on the Judiciary’s subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights and civil liberties.
Mr. Jordan said he is concerned that the federal monitoring of parents is part of a broader Biden administration attack on free speech.
He is one of the staunchest critics of the administration’s newly created “Disinformation Governing Board,” which is slated to be operated under the leadership of Nina Jankowicz.
Ms. Jankowicz has spread her own disinformation, including statements discrediting the validity of news reports about the politically damaging and potentially criminal information found on Hunter Biden’s laptop.
Critics have denounced the board as an attempt by the Biden administration to stifle free speech and censor and control the flow of information.
“This pattern we see from the left that controls the Biden administration is what’s so alarming,” Mr. Jordan said.
Lawmakers have not been able to determine whether the FBI is still investigating alleged threats against school officials under the monitoring program set up in October.
“But I tell people to stand up, speak out, exercise your First Amendment liberties,” Mr. Jordan told The Times. “Because if you don’t and if we don’t push back, then they’ll keep firing away.”
Mr. Garland is not scheduled to appear before Congress, and the Democratic majority is unlikely to summon him in response to Mr. Jordan’s inquiry.
The attorney general testified before the House and Senate in late October defending the federal effort to monitor threats to school officials and assuring lawmakers that parents who speak out at school board meetings would not be labeled terrorists.
“The Justice Department supports and defends the first amendment right of parents to complain as vociferously as they wish about the education of their children, about the curriculum taught in the schools,” Mr. Garland told the House Judiciary Committee on Oct. 21. “That is not what the memorandum is about at all. Nor does it use the words ‘domestic terrorism’ or ‘Patriot Act.’ Like you, I cannot imagine any circumstance in which the Patriot Act would be used in the circumstances of parents complaining about their children, nor can I imagine the circumstance where they would be labeled as domestic terrorism.”
Mr. Garland told the panel that the memorandum he issued to law enforcement calling for coordinated monitoring “is aimed at violence and threats of violence” against school officials.
Mr. Jordan has asked Mr. Garland to produce documents on the monitoring program, which Republicans first requested in November.
The panel’s Republicans may soon have subpoena power to help obtain the information if polls are correct in predicting their party will win a House majority in the November elections.
“Please be assured that Committee Republicans will not let this matter drop,” Mr. Jordan and Mr. Johnson wrote.