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Garland, Wray subpoenaed over allegations they weaponized the federal government

By Sarah May
|
February 4, 2023

With Republican House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (OH-4) looking to make good on promises to crack down on alleged weaponization of the federal government, the panel this week issued its first subpoenas to FBI Director Christopher Wray, Attorney General Merrick Garland, and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, as The Hill reports.

The subpoenas seek information related to an October 2021 memo from Garland directing the FBI to potentially take counterterrorism action against parents who spoke out at public school board meetings across the country.

Garland's memo

At issue, according to Jordan, is a directive issued by Garland instructing federal authorities to engage in strategy talks with law enforcement agencies to formulate responses to what he claimed were growing numbers of threats against school board members, teachers, and school employees.

A memo signed by Garland spoke of “a disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff who participate in the vital work of running our nation's public schools,” as the Associated Press reported at the time.

To tackle that trend, Garland said, the FBI would be charged with working with U.S. attorneys as well as other federal, state, local, and tribal agencies to develop strategies to combat the problem.

Reports indicated that Garland's memo was the result of a request made to the Biden administration by the National School Boards Association (NSBA), which claimed a need for federal assistance in monitoring threat levels posed by dissatisfied parents.

Controversy erupts

The response to Garland's memo was particularly harsh from the Republican side of the aisle, with lawmakers blasting the attorney general for intervening in matters rightly governed by state and local authorities.

Critics also slammed Garland for disseminating the aforementioned memo almost immediately after the NSBA lobbied the Biden administration to take strong action against school board protesters, including the potential use of the PATRIOT Act's counterterrorism provisions in such cases.

As Fox News noted during the heat of the controversy, Garland denied accusations that he had equated angry parents to domestic terrorists during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee.

“I want to be clear. 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,” Garland said. “That is not what the memorandum is about at all, nor does it use the words 'domestic terrorism' or “PATRIOT Act.'”

Contradictions emerge

Despite Garland's denials and his assurances that all with his 2021 memo was above board, in May of last year, Jordan and Republican Rep. Mike Johnson (LA-4) came forth with what they said was evidence that the FBI did indeed target parents who voiced displeasure with school COVID-19 policies and other matters, as Fox News reported separately.

The lawmakers sent a letter to the Justice Department indicating that they received evidence that the FBI had indeed used a threat tag developed by the agency's Counterterrorism Division to label parents being probed over supposed threatening conduct.

Jordan and Johnson detailed information about investigations the FBI had initiated involving parents who, among other things, belonged to the “Moms for Liberty” advocacy group, spoke in opposition to school masking policies, and voiced disagreement with vaccine mandates.

“This whistleblower information raises serious concerns that your October 4 memorandum will chill protected First Amendment activity as parents will rightfully fear that their passionate advocacy for their children could result in a visit from federal law enforcement,” the letter to Garland stated.

Deadline declared

The subpoenas issued to Garland, Wray, and Cardona by the Judiciary Committee require that all documents under their control pertaining to the aforementioned concerns be turned over by a deadline of March 1.

According to The Hill, the Department of Justice did not offer comment on the subpoenas Friday, but the outlet noted that both Garland and Wray have in the past denied accusations of unresponsiveness to Republican questions on the topic of parent targeting by federal agencies.

“As Director Wray and other FBI officials have stated clearly on numerous occasions before Congress and elsewhere, the FBI has never been in the business of investigating speech or policing speech at school board meetings or anywhere else, and we never will be,” a statement from the agency declared.

The Department of Education, for its part, stated that it “remains committed to responding to the House Judiciary Committee's requests in a manner consistent with longstanding Executive Branch Policy,” but whether information sufficient to satisfy Jordan and the rest of the Republicans on the panel is indeed forthcoming, only time will tell.