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FBI should be wary of attorney general’s directive on school board threats

Attorney General Merrick Garland addresses reporters at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, August 5, 2021 to announce an investigation of the City of Phoenix and the Phoenix Police Department for civil rights practices.
Greg Nash

It may come as a surprise to many Americans, but the FBI does not have to follow Department of Justice (DOJ) dictates in every case. The attorney general, as a Cabinet member, largely will hew to the policy agenda of the presidential administration he or she serves. The DOJ is supposed to be rigid in the application of law but it will, without question, amplify or downplay priorities in enforcement according to the political goals of the administration in power.

By contrast, the FBI, in design and purpose, is supposed to be scrupulously apolitical and independent — even of DOJ pressures and proclamations, should they be driven more by politics than law. This is to protect the American people from capricious government overreach motivated by ideology.  

This week, Attorney General Merrick Garland — who, if not for Republican interference, would be a Supreme Court justice right now — lobbed a stink bomb into the FBI’s living room apparently at the behest of a lobbyist organization, the National School Boards Association (NSBA). The NSBA lists policy positions in lock-step with the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest union and an early endorser of Joe Biden for president.

In other words, the NSBA has some political clout. Nice influence if you can get it, and apparently the NSBA has it. Last week, the NSBA fired off a letter to President Biden asserting threats of violence against school boards across the country, which they suggested are akin to domestic terrorism and hate crimes. Within five days, the attorney general issued a directive to the FBI and U.S. attorneys to immediately meet with federal, state and local law enforcement leaders to “discuss strategies for addressing this disturbing trend.”  

In addition, the FBI and other components of the DOJ are to create a task force “to determine how federal enforcement tools can be used to prosecute these crimes.”

Wow, this must be serious. Recent memory struggles to recall a situation where a private lobbyist organization was able to trigger such a quick and robust response from the DOJ for federal involvement in crimes normally prosecuted at the local level. The threats must be off the charts to warrant a task force and the deployment of the FBI’s formidable arsenal of “federal enforcement tools” that have been used to dismantle terrorist organizations, organized crime syndicates and espionage operations.  

The attorney general backed up his concern about a “disturbing trend” of threats of violence against school personnel with … no examples. Well, surely the letter from the NSBA must catalogue hair-raising instances of violence and threats of violence that merit “federal enforcement tools” such as task forces, electronic surveillance and undercover operations.  

The NSBA letter cites “documented threats” received by mail or internet platforms but offers just one example of a letter that states, “We are coming after you and all the members of the Board of Education,” apparently for forcing schoolchildren to wear masks, and notes, “for that you will pay dearly.” Is this a threat of violence, or common language used against elected officials to vote them out of office?  

The letter goes on to cite an instance in which one individual was arrested for aggravated battery and disorderly conduct at a board meeting; another individual who twice yelled a “Nazi salute in protest of masking requirements”; and an individual who prompted a school board to call a recess “because of opposition to critical race theory.”

The NSBA offered further examples of what they believe rise to the level of domestic terrorism and hate crimes by accusing “anti-mask proponents (of) inciting chaos during board meetings.”  An “individual was arrested” in Virginia and “another man was ticketed for trespassing,” while a “third person was hurt… .” Someone else labeled a “school board as Marxist.”

The NSBA seemed mostly concerned, however, about the disruption of school board meetings around the country by boisterous individuals. “School boards have been confronted by angry mobs and forced to end meetings abruptly.” Apparently, school board members didn’t sign up for actual opposition.

This certainly isn’t your father’s domestic terrorism, when bombings and murders and armored car robberies by violent extremists across the political spectrum regularly occurred for decades.  These are parents — sometimes angry, but they’re parents.

No one in law enforcement and no one of goodwill would argue against an appropriate enforcement response to clear threats and acts of violence. Fellow citizens serving on a school board should never suffer physical harm. Some of the examples cited by the NSBA could merit a limited local police inquiry into whether a potentially threatening person has the intent and capability to follow through with a violent act — the normal standard for triggering a follow-up investigation.

That said, the attorney general’s directive seems wildly disproportionate to the relatively mild anecdotes articulated by this interest group. A close read of the NSBA letter reveals their concern that some parents are pushing back against two prevalent school board policies in certain parts of the country: COVID-19 masking mandates and curriculum that incorporates aspects of critical race theory. Other parent protests have focused on transgender accommodations. Each of these issues is supported by, or receives sympathy from, the Biden administration. 

Like it or not, this opens up the attorney general to suspicion that his startlingly strong directive is motivated more by the opportunity to chill opposition to causes favored by the president’s party than a legitimate need to counter an actual menace to society.  

In addition, Garland’s directive furthers a growing narrative that the department’s resources are invested too heavily in matters of concern to certain privileged segments of the citizenry, particularly politicians and elected officials. There is no “National Association” of abused and abducted women and children, of inner-city shooting victims, of trafficked humans, of burned and looted urban businesses — battlegrounds where crime rages and resources are woefully inadequate. There is no association of these actual victims of horrendous crimes to fire off a letter and get the DOJ to immediately jump through hoops and intensify enforcement efforts.

The FBI needs to tread carefully. The manipulation of the bureau by political actors is still a raw memory and the battle to reclaim the trust of the American people is far from over. The FBI has the right, authority and duty to deploy its considerable capabilities and resources strictly in a proportionate and constitutionally appropriate manner — no matter what the more politically sensitive higher-ups may demand. We, the people, depend on it.    

Kevin R. Brock, former assistant director of intelligence for the FBI, was an FBI special agent for 24 years and principal deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He independently consults with private companies and public-safety agencies on strategic mission technologies. 

Tags domestic terrorism FBI Hate crimes Joe Biden Merrick Garland National School Boards Association Threats

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