FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress on Wednesday that he was "aghast" when he learned of an internal memo targeting Catholic communities as extremists.
In February, a leaked January 2023 memo from the Richmond Field Office in Virginia showed that the agency had taken an interest in traditionalist and Latin Mass Catholic parishes, saying that extremists would likely become interested in these parishes "in the run-up to the next general election cycle."
To counter this alleged extremist threat of "radical traditionalist Catholics," the memo, which was signed by at least five officials in the Richmond Field Office, recommended placing confidential informants in Catholic parishes ahead of the 2024 election.
It discussed the prospect of "new opportunities to mitigate extremist threat through outreach to traditional Catholic parishes and the development of sources with the placement and access to report on places of worship."
The leaked memo led to an outcry from Republicans and Catholics alike. Republicans characterized the discovery as the latest development in the weaponization of the federal government against conservatives. Bishop Barry Knestout of the Diocese of Richmond called the memo a “threat to religious liberty.”
During his testimony Wednesday before the House Judiciary Committee, Mr. Wray answered questions about the memo.
"What's the difference between a traditional Catholic and a radical traditional Catholic?" Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) asked Mr. Wray.
"Well, I'm not an expert on the Catholic orders," Mr. Wray replied.
When Mr. Jordan reminded him of the context of the question, pointing to the January memo, Mr. Wray sought to downplay its breadth, noting that it stemmed from a single field office and had no impact otherwise on FBI policy.
"You're referring to the Richmond product, which is a single product by a single field office," Mr. Wray said. "As soon as I found out about it, I was aghast and ordered it withdrawn and removed from FBI systems."
Mr. Wray reemphasized later that the document was not "something I will defend or excuse. It's something that I thought was appalling and removed it."
Panel Blocked From Speaking to AuthorsWhile Mr. Wray said he was not happy with the document, he emphasized that, to the best of his knowledge, it did not result in further investigative action.
After Mr. Wray expressed his condemnation of the document, Mr. Jordan countered by repeating a request that the panel be allowed to speak to its authors and those in the Richmond Field Office who authorized the memo.
"You were aghast, so why don't you let us talk to the people who put it together?" Mr. Jordan asked.
"We are working on finishing an internal review into what happened—" Mr. Wray began before being cut off by Mr. Jordan.
"We have to wait, we the Congress and the American people have to wait, until you do an internal review—it's not a criminal investigation—an internal review before we can talk to the people who wrote this," Mr. Jordan said.
Mr. Wray replied with a promise that when the agency had concluded its review, which he said "should be very soon, we will come come back in ... and provide a briefing on what we found."
Frustrated, Mr. Jordan said that he didn't "need an internal review" to know that the motive behind the memo was all "politics."
He cited from the memo, "events in which extremist and radical traditional Catholics might have common causes include legislation, judicial decisions in such areas as abortion rights, immigration, affirmative action, and LGBTQ protections."
Wray Defends FBI Ahead of Adversarial HearingIn his opening remarks ahead of the confrontational hearing, coming in the wake of a series of alleged abuses perpetrated by the agency, Mr. Wray defended the FBI's conduct to the panel.
"In the time that I have before we get to your questions, I want to talk about the sheer breadth and impact of the work the FBI's 38,000 employees are doing each and every day," Mr. Wray said in his opening remarks. "Because the work the men and women of the FBI do to protect the American people—it goes way beyond the one or two investigations that seem to capture all the headlines."
Mr. Wray noted that last year, the agency had made 20,000 arrests of violent criminals and child predators.
Mr. Wray said the agency is also "at work going after the cartels exploiting our southwest border to traffic fentanyl and other dangerous drugs into communities nationwide."
He said that figure includes more than 300 investigations into the Central American drug cartels currently exploiting insecurities along the southern border.
Mr. Wray also pointed to the agency's work to combat the distribution and importation of fentanyl into the United States.
"We've already seized hundreds of kilograms of fentanyl this year alone, stopping deadly drugs from reaching their intended destinations in states all over the country and saving countless American lives," he said.
Additionally, he noted the agency's work to counter "the Chinese government's efforts to steal our most precious secrets, rob our businesses of their ideas and innovation, and repress freedom of speech right here in the United States."
Mr. Wray painted an image that these types of activities formed the core identity and work of the FBI.
Still, many Republicans and Democrats alike have concerns with the agency, particularly regarding its mishandling of surveillance tools like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
In addition, most of the front runners for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, including former President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley have said they would remove the embattled FBI director almost immediately upon taking office.