FBI documents apparently leaked by a bureau whistleblower suggest that federal law enforcement is treating threats against school board members as potential acts of domestic terrorism. Marc Ruskin, retired FBI agent and author of “The Pretender: My Life Undercover for the FBI,” spoke with The Epoch Times about what the documents mean and why they matter.
Though the FBI whistleblower’s revelations have sparked outrage by parents, civil libertarians, and Republican lawmakers, the documents themselves don’t say much. The whistleblower provided an Oct. 20 email sent by Carlton L. Peeples, who serves in the bureau’s Inspection Division, stating that the Counterterrorism and Criminal Division “created a threat tag, EDUOFFICIALS, to track instances of related threats.”
“We ask that your offices apply the threat tag to investigations and assessments of threats specifically directed against school board administrators, board members, teachers, and staff,” the email reads, signed by Counterterrorism Division Assistant Director Timothy Langan and then-Criminal Division Assistant Director Calvin Shivers.
Though the email isn’t much longer than that, Ruskin said it’s significant because it suggests that federal law enforcement is taking the investigation seriously.
“The fact that a tag has been assigned to these cases would indicate to me that it’s something they’re anticipating moving forward with these investigations,” he said.
The EDUOFFICIALS tag is likely a data-processing device similar to a hashtag on social media, according to Ruskin. The bureau is trying to coordinate its efforts so that agents investigating school board threats in one jurisdiction know what’s going on nationwide, he said.
“Applying the tag across the counterterrorism and criminal divisions would be to avoid any cases being lost in the cracks,” Ruskin said.
He also said the fact that the tag is being used by the counterterrorism division suggests that the FBI will be treating some of the school board threats as domestic terrorism cases. This is the true significance of the whistleblower documents, he said.
“There’s an intention or a likelihood that individuals being investigated are going to be categorized as domestic terrorists,” Ruskin said.
He said the decision by the FBI to classify angry parents as domestic terrorism threats has dark implications for free speech rights.
“The idea that the FBI is treating individuals who express opinions contrary to the prevailing government opinion as domestic terrorists is disturbing from a First Amendment point of view,” Ruskin said. “And it may very well be intended to have a chilling effect on freedom of expression.
“Why is the FBI using its counterterrorism division to investigate cases of parents who get upset—even if they’re yelling or shouting? How does that fit into any sort of definition of terrorism?”
Attorney General Merrick Garland has justified the investigation on the grounds that there has been a “disturbing spike” in harassment and threats of violence against educators. But the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Counterterrorism Coordinator John Cohen contradicted Garland on Nov. 3, when he said at a congressional hearing that his department hadn’t found any evidence of rising violence against educators.
“We did reach out to state and local law enforcement. There have been some sporadic instances of violence at school board meetings and in educational facilities,” Cohen said earlier this month. “However, the information that we received is that state and local law enforcement were not seeing widespread action.”
Ruskin said he thinks the government is creating solutions for problems that don’t exist. He said this could become dangerous if the FBI’s counter domestic terrorism agents start looking for reasons to justify their existence.
“When you create a file and say, ‘This is where we’re going to put the domestic terrorism cases,’ then you’ve created an incentive to fill it,” he said. “If you have an environment where you’re looking to create a certain type of case, you’ll go out of your way to find it in those investigations.”
It was also revealed this week that the State Department has started its own domestic counterterrorism program, with national security officials seeking to share intelligence with their international counterparts. Given that the FBI and DHS both say that most right-wing domestic terrorism is conducted by “lone wolves” with no transnational ties, it’s unclear what information would be shared under the State Department’s program or what international actions would be taken.
Ruskin said this initiative also raises numerous questions.
“If they feel there’s a need to create such a network, can they share with us the documentation, the internal reports from State, DOJ, and FBI that justify the creation of such a network?” he said. “Can they show the underlying facts that justify the devotion of resources to such a network?”