Newest right-wing scandal: An FBI memo on how to report criminal threats — and not about “tracking parents”

The latest FBI memo specifically called for threat reports to identify the laws being broken — not just people being angry at local government meetings

Fox News and other right-wing media voices are now hyping a letter from House Republicans claiming that the FBI is targeting parents who show up to complain at school board meetings. But the document they have produced does not even say that at all.

Previously, Fox News lied about an FBI letter on efforts to track violent threats against school officials, to then claim that parents across the country would be labeled as “domestic terrorists.” In fact, an official memorandum specifically differentiated such threats from “spirited debate about policy matters” that is protected by the Constitution.

The outlets are now misusing an FBI term of art, “threat tag,” to make it sound like individual parents are being tracked. An FBI spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal (one of Fox’s corporate cousins) that such tags are used to track information on a range of issues, but that “the creation of a threat tag in no way changes the long-standing requirements for opening an investigation, nor does it represent a shift in how the FBI prioritizes threats.”

The statement also bluntly explained: “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.”

The text of the latest memo, as posted on Twitter by Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee, does not call for anyone to report people simply showing up at local government meetings. In fact, the memo made clear that anyone filing an example should identify any potential laws being broken, with an emphasis on violations that would require a federal presence:

When evaluating potential threats, we ask that you attempt to identify the following:

a) Is there a federal nexus?

b) Are there potential federal violations that can be investigated and charged?

c) What’s the motivation behind the criminal activity?

We appreciate your attention to this matter and welcome any engagement to identify trends, strategies, and best practices to accomplish discouraging, identifying, and prosecuting those who use violence, threats of violence, and other forms of intimidation and harassment pertaining to this threat.

In short, if there are no violent acts or threats of violence, then there would be no incidents to file, and thus nothing to track.

But that was not how the story was presented on Fox’s afternoon news program, The Story with Martha MacCallum, during an interview between the anchor and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH).

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Citation From the November 16, 2021, edition of Fox News’ The Story with Martha MacCallum

MARTHA MACCALLUM ( ANCHOR): I want to ask you one last question, with regard to an issue that you and I have discussed in the past, which is Attorney General Merrick Garland and the effort by the DOJ to make sure that any of these parents who are speaking out at these school board meetings — who step over the line — are under the purview or investigation of the FBI. A new development in that?

REP. JIM JORDAN (R-OH): Yeah, oh there is. We just had a whistleblower come forward. We got information from him, from this individual yesterday. And as he points out in this, the FBI, the day before Merrick Garland testified, so on October 20 — he testified on the 21st — on October 21, there was a memo that goes out from the counterterrorism division at the FBI, instructing them to put threat tags on parents. They were actually cataloging and categorizing parents who may pose a threat.

So this is a federal categorizing of moms and dads showing up at school board meetings, is frightening. And of course, Merrick Garland testified the day after that memo went out, no, nothing of the sort is going on. We got some real questions for the attorney general in light of this whistleblower’s information that he’s brought forth.

In addition, Fox’s flagship news anchor Bret Baier uncritically repeated the spin on “new information about federal authorities tracking parents upset over their children’s education.”

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Citation From the November 16, 2021, edition of Fox News' Special Report with Bret Baier 

The story is now being promoted on Twitter by Christopher Rufo, a frequent Fox News guest, who has been the driving force behind the political campaign to use “critical race theory” as an umbrella term for every right-wing culture war grievance.

It's time to clean house in America: remove the attorney general, lay siege to the universities, abolish the teachers unions, and overturn the school boards. Rufo

The story was also tweeted by Ian Prior, who has previously appeared on Fox and been identified as a “concerned parent” in Virginia — though he is also a former press office staffer in the Trump-era Justice Department. Prior tweeted that Garland “needs to go - ASAP,” and the department’s inspector general “needs to immediately launch an investigation.” Fox News contributor Katie Pavlich has also accused Garland of committing perjury.

The story is also being promoted heavily by Charlie Kirk, Jack Posobiec, and Mike Cernovich — each of whom have their own previous ties to political violence, white nationalism, or conspiracy theories that have resulted in violence.

On an important side note, Jordan also claimed that this supposed new story “reminded me, frankly, Martha, remember back when Lois Lerner and the IRS targeted people with the ‘BOLO’ list, be-on-the-lookout list?”

“Yeah, we know what happened to them,” MacCallum replied. “Agents show up at their doors and go through all of their financial documents.”

This referred to a manufactured scandal from 2013 in which conservative media outlets claimed that the Obama administration must have been involved in the unfair targeting of conservative groups’ finances, with Fox News pushing for the appointment of a special prosecutor.

However, it soon emerged in June 2013 that the supposed scandal had been fake from the start. The Associated Press obtained documents showing that IRS screeners, in addition to looking for terms such as “tea party,” had also included “progressive” and “occupy” — in short, the agency was doing its job in a fair manner. (Not only that, but it had already been known for years that the only three advocacy organizations to actually be denied tax-exempt status were progressive ones.)

But the damage was done, as the artificially engineered scandal succeeded at creating a false narrative for the long haul. And now, it has become obvious that right-wing media are going back to the same playbook of dishonesty that had served them so well last time.