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The Federal Bureau of Investigation seal is seen at FBI headquarters before a 2018 news conference in Washington. The FBI retracted a memo about "radical traditionalist" Catholic intersection with violent anti-government and white supremacist movements that advised creating "assets" in these communities. (OSV News photo/Yuri Gripas, Reuters)

Two former agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation who went on to hold leadership roles in the church say a recently revealed and subsequently retracted memo characterizing Catholics with a devotion to the Traditional Latin Mass as possible domestic threats is a troubling example of the law enforcement agency not following its own guidelines.

“It’s one thing if a journalist writes this in an opinion piece,” Kathleen McChesney, a former head of F.B.I. field offices in Chicago and Portland, told America. “It’s another thing when it’s in a government document.”

Ms. McChesney, who previously held the third-highest role in the F.B.I., described the memo as “a terrible analytical document” and “antithetical to F.B.I. professional practices and guidelines.”

News of the memo popped up earlier this month, when a conservative news and commentary website, UncoverDC.com, published what it said was a copy of an internal F.B.I analysis. The memo reports on a growing interest in Catholic traditionalism by some racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists, and it speculates that the overlap in these circles will continue to rise ahead of the next presidential election.

Ms. McChesney, who previously held the third-highest role in the F.B.I., described the memo as “a terrible analytical document” and “antithetical to F.B.I. professional practices and guidelines.”

A former F.B.I. special agent who was suspended last year leaked the document, Newsweek reported. In a statement to the Catholic News Agency, the F.B.I. said it was taking steps to remove the document, which it said “does not meet the exacting standards of the FBI.”

These kinds of documents, Ms. McChesney said, are usually written by F.B.I. analysts as tools to help agents with potential or ongoing cases. She said that memos ideally cite information gathered from human sources, perhaps in addition to other material, and that they should point to a crime that is either in the works or has already been committed.

The memo about traditionalist Catholics appears to draw its information from secondary sources, including a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center and published news reports. Ms. McChesney said the S.P.L.C. produces solid research and that journalism can be helpful in understanding the broader context of specific investigations but that this particular memo was too broad.

“I didn’t see details of crimes that people were committing,” Ms. McChesney said. “You have to tie everything back to the actor, the criminal.”

Phil Andrew, a former special agent both in the United States and abroad, told America that the problem with the memo lies in its generalizing verbiage, which seemed to say that Catholics with a preference for traditionalism could become involved in domestic terrorist activity due to their religious beliefs.

“I didn’t see details of crimes that people were committing,” Ms. McChesney said. “You have to tie everything back to the actor, the criminal.”

Based on his reading of the memo, Mr. Andrew said that this does not point to any actual F.B.I. investigation underway that unfairly targets Catholics. Intelligence reports like this one are based on an analyst’s research and are not necessarily indicative of any active investigations.

But he said the language in the memo suggests to him that something was amiss in its creation and dissemination.

“Something went wrong where it didn’t get peer reviewed. And I think seemingly biased language was used in the drafting of it, and that shouldn’t be,” he said.

Matters related to religion are particularly sensitive when it comes to F.B.I. investigations, especially following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the bureau’s surveillance of Islamic communities in the United States.

“You stay out of that kind of conjecture,” Ms. McChesney said of the memo. “It’s unprofessional, it’s wrong, and it goes into areas about religion that the F.B.I. doesn’t get into.”

In addition, the creation of the memo seems to run afoul of strict guidelines related to investigations that went into effect after a scandal in 1983 involving the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, known as CISPES, which the F.B.I. claimed was supplying funds and weapons to a violent political group in El Salvador. Though the F.B.I. found no evidence of a terrorist link within CISPES, it continued to surveil the organization, including looking at members who had not been suspected of any crimes. Fallout from the case led the F.B.I. to tighten its guidelines about what constitutes enough evidence to open an investigation.

“You stay out of that kind of conjecture,” Ms. McChesney said of the memo. “It’s unprofessional, it’s wrong, and it goes into areas about religion that the F.B.I. doesn’t get into.”

The central issue in the CISPES case—when surveillance on possible security threats infringes on free speech—remains salient today and has drawn comparison to the Catholic memo.

Ms. McChesney said that senior F.B.I. leadership should respond to the letter from several state attorneys general and inquiries from congressional leaders and that the memo should prompt a review of internal procedures and policies. She said that the power granted to the F.B.I. means that it must take seriously its duty to follow best practices.

“If it was accurately reported that it was approved in the field office, then there is a tremendous need for training about preparing documents, conducting investigations and training supervisors who approve those documents,” she said.

In recent years, the F.B.I. has been the subject of intense criticism from conservative leaders, who accuse the agency of trying to undermine the presidency of Donald J. Trump and of targeting conservative political groups.

In their letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland and F.B.I. Director Christopher Wray, the 20 state attorneys general write, “Anti-Catholic bigotry appears to be festering in the FBI, and the Bureau is treating Catholics as potential terrorists because of their beliefs.”

Ms. McChesney said that while the memo should give F.B.I. leaders pause, it does not impugn the work of the entire bureau.

Mr. Andrew, who went on to lead an anti-violence initiative for the Archdiocese of Chicago and who teaches at DePaul University, said he never experienced any bigotry related to his Catholic faith during his career. He condemns any attempt to use the memo as a tool “to tear down the work of the F.B.I. and the mission of the F.B.I. and somehow discredit it across the board.”

The Biden administration announced in 2021 that it would examine threats of domestic terrorism, which it called “the most urgent terrorism threat the United States faces today.” A White House fact sheet notes that the administration aims “to protect both the nation and the civil liberties of its citizens.”

Trying to balance multiple objectives, such as security and freedom of speech and religion, can be tricky, Mr. Andrew said, especially because domestic terrorism is not as clearly defined legally as international terrorism.

“And I think that that allows for some of this ambiguity, that could be settled if we clearly defined what that is and separated speech from action,” he said.

Ms. McChesney, who went on to found and lead the office of child protection of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that while the memo should give F.B.I. leaders pause, it does not impugn the work of the entire bureau.

“The F.B.I. still remains a very powerful national and international law enforcement agency with tremendous authority and responsibility,” she said. “It has to strive everyday to be the best it can be. You have lots of people, thousands of employees, who are doing just that.”

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