- An FBI document identified conspiracy theories as motivators for violent domestic terrorism for the first time.
- The document, which comes from an FBI field office in Phoenix, Arizona says “fringe political conspiracy theories very likely motivate some domestic extremists, wholly or in part, to commit criminal and sometimes violent activity.”
- The document provides numerous examples, specifically noting violent acts encouraged by QAnon and Pizzagate.
- The FBI has recently come under fire for how it defines and addresses white supremacist acts in relation to domestic terrorism.
A previously unpublished FBI intelligence bulletin identifies “conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists” as a growing threat, marking the first time the agency has done so.
The bulletin obtained by Yahoo News is from the FBI’s Phoenix Arizona field office and is dated May 30, 2019.
According to the document, the FBI “assesses anti-government, identity based, and fringe political conspiracy theories very likely motivate some domestic extremists, wholly or in part, to commit criminal and sometimes violent activity.”
The bulletin goes on to provide multiple examples of conspiracy theories that prompted individuals to either attempt or succeed in carrying out violent attacks.
It mentions QAnon, which it defined as “an anonymous government official known as Q posts classified information online to reveal a covert effort, led by President Trump, to dismantle a conspiracy involving ‘deep state’ actors and global elites allegedly engaged in an international child sex trafficking ring.”
Regarding QAnon, the FBI document gave an example of a QAnon follower who used an armored truck to block off traffic to the Hoover Dam bridge.
The document also mentions Pizzagate, a debunked conspiracy that democratic officials were running a child sex trafficking ring at Washington D.C.’s Comet Ping Pong restaurant.
It gives numerous examples of attempted violent acts encouraged by this particular conspiracy, such a man who entered Comet Ping Pong with two guns and fired at a locked door before he aimed at an employee.
The FBI bulletin also identifies the man who killed 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in October as an example of a violent extremist who believed in conspiracy theories concerning Jewish people and organizations.
Increased Scrutiny of FBI
The FBI bulletin comes amid increased scrutiny of how the agency defines and approaches domestic extremism.
During a Senate committee hearing in July, FBI Director Christopher Wray was criticized by Democrats who argued the bureau was not doing enough to address white supremacist violence.
“The term ‘white supremacist,’ ‘white nationalist’ is not included in your statement to the committee when you talk about threats to America,” said Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill).
Wray told the Senators that the FBI did not list white supremacists as a separate category of extremism, because the agency was focusing on “racially motivated” violence more generally.
“I will say that a majority of the domestic terrorism cases that we’ve investigated are motivated by some version of what you might call white supremacist violence,” the director added.
The Future of Extremism and Conspiracy Theories
The FBI bulletin says that conspiracy theories are not new, specifically stating, “throughout history, such conspiracy theories have fueled prejudice, witch-hunts, genocide, and acts of terrorism.”
However, it does say that this problem has gotten worse because the internet and social media has “enabled promoters of conspiracy theories to produce and share greater volumes of material via online platforms that larger audiences of consumers can quickly and easily access.”
The FBI also provided a grim outlook for the future.
“These conspiracy theories very likely will emerge, spread, and evolve in the modern information marketplace over the near term, fostering anti-government sentiment, promoting racial and religious prejudice, increasing political tensions, and occasionally driving both groups and individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts,” the document says.
The document also added that the bureau believes the 2020 presidential election cycle “likely will impact the direction of these conspiracy theories and the potential activities of extremists who subscribe to them over the long term.”
A more recent example of fringe conspiracy theories promoting violence not included in the FBI bulletin is the highly publicized case of Anthony Comello.
In March, Comello shot and killed a suspected mob boss who he believed was part of the deep state.
“Mr. Comello’s support for QAnon went beyond mere participation in a radical political organization, it evolved into a delusional obsession,” Comello’s attorney Robert Gottlieb wrote in a letter to the court.
“Because of his self-perceived status in QAnon, Mr. Comello became certain that he was enjoying the protection of President Trump himself, and that he had the president’s full support,” the letter continued.
Some have also accused President Donald Trump of propagating some conspiracy theories and supporting prominent conspiracy theorists. Trump is well known for promoting the “birther” conspiracy, that former President Barack Obama was not born in the U.S.
Others have also pointed to the recent growth of people wearing QAnon t-shirts or holding QAnon signs at Trump rallies and events.
Lots of Q shirts here at the rally in Cincinnati and Trump pre-rally speaker Brandon Straka just said “Where we go one, we go all.” — a common rallying cry of the #QAnon movement. They even have an acronym for it. #WWG1GWA. pic.twitter.com/cOsAB3vLmC— Marcus J. DiPaola (@marcusdipaola) August 1, 2019
At a recent rally in Greenville, North Carolina, the president specifically pointed out a “beautiful baby” wearing a jumpsuit with a Q representing QAnon.
Trump, for this part, has not spoken out against QAnon, but last week he said in a tweet that Antifa should be labeled as a terrorist organization.
See what others are saying: (Yahoo News) (The Washington Post) (NBC News)
Exemptions for Religious Gatherings During Pandemic Cause Confusion
- About a dozen states that have issued stay-at-home orders during the coronavirus pandemic have also made exemptions for religious gatherings.
- A combination of mixed messaging from leaders, misreporting by the media, and overlapping decisions made at the state, county, and city levels have led to confusion about the exemptions.
- Even in states with very clear bans, several religious leaders have continued to hold gatherings, arguing that banning them violates the first amendment.
- Some churches in Arkansas, California, Illinois, and other states have already reported outbreaks that spread among members after they held large gatherings.
Religious Exemptions in States
With the Easter holidays rapidly approaching, state-wide exemptions for religious gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic have sparked confusion, concern, and a heated debate about religious freedoms.
Part of the confusion stems from the difficulty in pinning down exactly how many places that have shelter in place orders also have exemptions for religious gatherings.
According to the New York Times, “41 states, three counties, eight cities, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico are being urged to stay home.”
In some places, like California, in-person religious gatherings have been outright banned throughout the whole state. In others, it is not as clear-cut.
This is not helped by a large amount of misreporting on how many states have religious exemptions.
Some of the misreporting and confusion is due to the fact that while some states explicitly list religious gatherings as exempt, others, like Alabama and South Carolina, just provide a list of entities that have to close. Those lists do not include religious organizations.
Around a dozen states have some kind of religious exemption for stay-at-home orders.
Florida, Texas & Religious Freedoms
There’s also an issue with overlapping authority regarding decisions made at the state level versus the county and city levels.
For example, last week, Florida megachurch pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested for holding services despite the shelter in place order in Hillsborough County, where his church was.
A few days later, Florida Gov. Ron Desantis implemented a state-wide safer and home order that explicitly allowed religious gatherings.
“There’s no reason why you can’t do a church service with people spread 10 feet apart, so we definitely ask them to abide by social distancing guidelines, but I think, in times like this, the service they are providing is very important for people,” DeSantis said, despite the fact that there was no clear indication in his order that social distancing rules needed to be followed.
Following DeSantis’ announcement, Howard-Browne said he will keep his church shut down because he received death threats, though he still pushed back against the county’s now-defunct order.
“The First Amendment provides express protections to houses of worship and assembly,” he said in a statement. “There is no similar constitutional protection for commercial businesses; yet houses of worship and religious gatherings are signaled out for discrimination.”
Religious institutions are largely believed to be protected from regulations in the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has ruled that a law cannot “unduly burden” a religion unless there is a “compelling interest.”
But whether or not the pandemic can be considered “compelling” is a much bigger and more complicated constitutional debate, as there is no precedent for a pandemic in the modern world of this scale and magnitude.
Florida is not alone here. Last week, three pastors in Texas filed a lawsuit against Harris County, where Houston is located, after a stay-at-home order that barred religious gatherings was put in place.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also signed a statewide shelter in place order that allowed religious gatherings a few days later, and like in Florida, the state-wide order in Texas effectively made the local orders moot.
Mixes Messages & Ignored Orders
Mixed messaging from leaders has also added to the confusion.
The Solid Rock Church in Monroe, Ohio generated viral buzz Sunday after a CNN report showed numerous cars leaving a Palm Sunday service. When one of the drivers was asked if she was concerned about spreading the virus, she responded, “No, I’m covered in Jesus’ blood.”
According to reports, the town’s mayor had specifically asked that the church stop holding in-person services, a request which it rejected.
The point was also echoed by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine.
“Any pastor who brings people together, in close proximity to each other, a large group of people, is making a huge mistake,” he said. “It’s not a Christian thing to do.”
That, however, was confusing to some, because DeWine was the one who issued the order allowing for religious exemptions in the first place.
But even in places where there are very clear-cut orders explicitly banning religious gatherings, some churches are outright ignoring them.
In Louisiana, Pastor Tony Spell of the Life Tabernacle Church held services Sunday despite the fact that he had been arrested for violating the state’s order and holding services just a few days earlier.
In Sacramento, the Bethany Slavic Missionary megachurch reportedly continued to hold services even after 71 members of the congregation tested positive for the coronavirus. The church was shuttered as of this weekend.
Hotspot for Spread
The Bethany Slavic Missionary church was not the only religious institution that has made way for the spread of the coronavirus. In fact, several religious gatherings have proven to be hotspots for the contraction and spread of the virus.
In February, six people who attended a church conference at a hotel in Louisville, Kentucky tested positive. North Carolina public health officials have said “multiple cases” of the virus are connected to a March event held by the Faith Assembly Christian Center at another hotel Durham.
Rural Minnesota has reported at least nine cases that were traced to one church, and at least 10 members of a church in a suburb of Chicago got sick after a March 15 service.
In Arkansas, more than three dozen people who attended a children’s event at a church tested positive at the end of March.
See what others are saying: (ABC News) (The Hill) (The Guardian)
White House Experts Clash Over Promotion of Hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 Treatment
- Axios reported that presidential trade adviser Peter Navarro heatedly confronted Dr. Anthony Fauci on Saturday over whether or not there has been “clear” evidence showing hydroxychloroquine’s effectiveness against COVID-19.
- The fiery exchange did little to stifle President Trump’s praise of the drug, as he continued to push it in back-to-back press conferences this weekend.
- On Sunday, Trump cut off a reporter trying to ask Dr. Fauci about his thoughts on hydroxychloroquine’s effectiveness.
Navarro Clashes With Fauci Over Hydroxychloroquine
The debate within the Trump Administration on how to advertise hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19 heated up over the weekend in a fiery exchange between presidential trade adviser Peter Navarro and Dr. Anthony Fauci.
According to an exclusive report by Axios, that confrontation happened Saturday afternoon in the White House Situation Room. It began after Commissioner of Food and Drugs Stephen Hahn began talking about hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug that’s being investigated to possibly treat COVID-19 patients.
President Trump has frequently touted it at press conferences, calling it a “game-changer” for the United States. Many scientists like Dr. Fauci, however, have been more cautious on how to present the drug to the public since it’s not currently approved to treat COVID-19. This is because hydroxychloroquine has a number of known side effects, including heart and vision problems.
While their argument isn’t to necessarily prevent hydroxychloroquine from ever being used, scientists simply want to make sure the benefits outweigh the risks before it gets widespread use.
In the meeting, Hahn reportedly started giving updates regarding different hydroxychloroquine trials.
Navarro then got up, and according to an Axios source familiar with the situation, “…the first words out of his mouth are that the studies that he’s seen, I believe they’re mostly overseas, show ‘clear therapeutic efficacy.’ Those are the exact words out of his mouth.”
Fauci then pushed back, saying that at the moment, the evidence for those studies and hydroxychloroquine’s effectiveness is only anecdotal. Notably, that is something he’s repeatedly said in the past weeks.
Fauci’s comment reportedly set Navarro off. According to Axios’ sources, Navarro then pointed to those studies and said, “That’s science, not anecdote.”
Reportedly, he then started yelling and accused Dr. Fauci of objecting to Trump’s travel restrictions, saying, “You were the one who early on objected to the travel restrictions with China.”
Dr. Fauci and others then reportedly looked confused, likely because Fauci has praised Trump’s travel restrictions on China.
Following that, Vice President Mike Pence and others reportedly tried to moderate the discussion, a source saying, “It was pretty clear that everyone was just trying to get [Navarro] to sit down and stop being so confrontational.”
Eventually, Jared Kushner reportedly managed to convince Navarro and everyone else to change the conversation to hot zones in the U.S.
Before they did, they agreed that the administration’s stance should be that the decision to use the drug is between patients and doctors prescribing it off-label.
“There has never been a confrontation in the task force meetings like the one yesterday,” Axios’ sources said. “People speak up and there’s robust debate, but there’s never been a confrontation. Yesterday was the first confrontation.”
Monday morning, Navarro spoke on that disagreement and defended himself on CNN, saying, “Doctors disagree about things all the time. My qualifications in terms of looking at the science is that I’m a social scientist. I have a Ph. D. And I understand how to read statistical studies, whether it’s in medicine, the law, economics or whatever.”
Trump Continues to Tout Hydroxychloroquine
Despite a notable escalation in tensions over hydroxychloroquine among President Doanld Trump’s advisers, it did not seem to stop Trump from propping up the drug this weekend.
“What do you have to lose?” Trump said Saturday. “It’s been out there for a long time, and I hope they use it. And they’re going to look at the—with doctors, work with doctors, get what you have to get.
“And I hope they use it because it’s been used for a long time and therefore, it’s passed the safety tests,” he continued.
“In fact, I might do it anyway,” Trump added on hydroxychloroquine. “I may take it. I’ll have to ask my doctors about that, but I may take it.”
Alongside that, Trump said that the U.S. has stockpiled 29 million pills of hydroxychloroquine.
Trump continued to rush hydroxychloroquine as a treatment on Sunday, saying, “We don’t have time to say, ‘Gee, let’s go and take a couple of years and test it out. And let’s go and test with the test tubes and the laboratories.’ We don’t have time. I’d love to do that, but we have people dying today, as we speak, there are people dying.”
Sunday’s press briefing, however, was eclipsed by another moment when Trump cut off a reporter as that reporter tried to ask Dr. Fauci a question regarding his opinion on the use of hydroxychloroquine.
“Would you also weigh in on this issue of hydroxychloroquine? What do you think about this and what is the medical evidence?” a reporter asked Fauci, who was taking questions from the podium
“Do you know how many times he’s answered that question?” Trump asked, stepping forward from the side as Dr. Fauci “Maybe fifteen. Fifteen times. You don’t have to ask the question.”
“The question is for the doctor,” the reporter said. “He’s your medical expert, correct?”
“He’s answered that question 15 times,” Trump repeated before moving onto the next question.
Where Is the U.S. With Hydroxychloroquine?
Right now, the United States is likely still months away from knowing whether or not hydroxychloroquine will prove to be effective against COVID-19.
That said, clinical trials have already begun in New York. Last week, the Food and Drug Administration also approved hydroxychloroquine for emergency treatment.
On Sunday, Pence announced another clinical trial, a 3,000 person trial set to begin with the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit. Specifically, it will look at whether or not hydroxychloroquine will prevent COVID-19 in healthcare workers battling the virus.
“This is going to be the first major, definitive study in healthcare workers and first responders of hydroxychloroquine as a preventative medication,” said Dr. William O’Neill with the Henry Ford Health System. “There has been a lot of talk about this drug, but only a small, non-blinded study in Europe. We are going to change that in Metro Detroit and produce a scientific answer to the question: Does it work?”
Still, that study will also take at least a few months to conduct. Even then, doctors are warning that timely caution is the best practice for this drug.
“There could be negative side effects,” President of the American Medical Association Dr. Patrice Harris said on CNN. “There could be deaths. This is a new virus, and so we should not be promoting any medication or drug for any disease that has not been proven and approved by the FDA.”
“You could lose your life,” she added after being asked about potential dangers. “It’s unproven. And so certainly there are some limited studies, as Dr. Fauci said. But at this point, we just don’t have the data to suggest that we should be using this medication for COVID-19.”
Federal Officials Distribute Medical Gear Seized in Price-Gouging Investigation
- Federal agents seized essential medical gear including 192,000 N95 respirator masks, 130,000 surgical masks, 598,000 medical grade gloves, from a man in Brooklyn, NY hoarding and reselling supplies at a 700% mark up.
- When agents confronted the man, he allegedly lied about his crimes and coughed towards them, saying he had tested positive for the coronavirus.
- He was charged with assaulting federal officers and making false statements to law enforcement.
- Officials took possession of the items and distributed them to NY and NJ health departments, saying they will pay the man “fair market value” for the goods.
Federal officials said Thursday that they seized thousands of masks and other essential medical supplies from an alleged hoarder in Brooklyn this week, which they redistributed to health departments in New York and New Jersey.
The supplies, taken from 43-year-old Baruch Feldheim, included 192,000 N95 respirator masks, 130,000 surgical masks, 598,000 medical grade gloves, surgical gowns, disinfectant towels, hand sanitizer, and spray disinfectant.
The Department of Justice and Health and Human Services said the equipment was seized by a task force created to crack down on coronavirus-related hoarding and price gouging.
While personal protective equipment, known as PPE, is in high demand all over the world, it is especially needed in New York and New Jersey, where the most coronavirus cases have been reported in the United States.
The investigation against Feldheim came after a New Jersey doctor told NBC News in an interview last month that because of the severe supply shortages, he resorted to buying protective equipment on the black market at an extremely high price.
Federal agents approached the doctor for more information and he directed them to a WhatsApp group where sales were being facilitated. The doctor told investigators Feldheim charged him $12,000 for a large order of maks, gowns, gloves, and hazmat gear. The F.B.I described that price as a 700% markup.
The doctor told investigators that when he went to pick up his order at an auto repair shop in Irvington, N.J., he saw enough pallets of medical gear, Clorox wipes, hand sanitizer, and surgical equipment to supply an entire hospital. FBI agents even said they themselves saw people walking away from Feldheim’s residence with boxes or bags of what appeared to be medical supplies.
“It’s the most un-American thing I can think of right now, in a time of crisis, for anybody to take materials that they know are needed on the front line and take them out of the supply chain, hide them and try to sell them at a markup,” Craig Carpenito, the top federal prosecutor in New Jersey who was tapped by the attorney general last week to lead the task force, told CNN
Federal agents first confronted Feldheim outside his home Sunday, where he reportedly lied about owning and selling large quantities of supplies. He also allegedly coughed towards the agents, telling them he had tested positive for the virus, authorities said.
The following day, Justice Department prosecutors in Newark charged Feldheim with assaulting federal officers and making false statements to law enforcement. Carpenito told CNN prosecutors were still investigating and considering charges of hoarding and price gouging under the Defense Production Act.
Feildheim’s defense lawyer, James Moriarty, denied the charges and said his client had not entered a plea yet, according to Reuters.
As far as the seized goods, Health and Human Services said it used its Defense Production Act authority to take possession of the items for the US government and will pay Feldheim the “fair market value” for them. The materials were inspected and redistributed to the health departments of New York State, New Jersey, and New York City, the authorities said.
In a message sent to his F.B.I. colleagues sent Thursday, the special agent in charge of the F.B.I.’s Newark office, Gregory W. Ehrie, said the efforts of law enforcement officers were making a difference during the healthcare crisis.
“It is gratifying when the challenging and risky work of our agents has such positive and tangible results,” Ehrie wrote.
“Profiteers need to be aware that we are looking for them and will do whatever necessary to help stem the tide of this crisis. The public needs to know that they are a force multiplier in our efforts and should bring us any information that could curtail criminal activity.”