Thanks to the CATO Institute, we learned that the FBI in 2016 conducted a criminal “charity assessment” of the Concerned Women for America (CWA), an evangelical women’s non-profit activist group dedicated to upholding traditional family values and opposing abortion.
The suspicion raised by this investigation is that CWA may have been targeted more for its political point of view than out of any concern for its adherence to the law. Civil libertarians have equal reason for concern that from 2017-2020, the shoe might have been on the other foot, ideologically speaking. During that period, the FBI targeted “Black identity extremists” that many believed included Black Lives Matter and other racial activist groups
In this case, with no criminal predicate, CWA was targeted for an “embezzlement of non-profit organizations/corporate fraud” investigation. The apparent trigger for the investigation, according to material obtained by CATO in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, was a “two-star rating” from Charity Navigator, a non-profit that gives charities online evaluations. A cursory review shows that of almost 5,500 charities rated by this organization, almost 1,000 received a two-star review. (Charity Navigator now gives CWA a rating of three stars out of four.)
Patrick Eddington of CATO reports that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which approves FBI electronic surveillance of foreigners under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments, “has repeatedly chastised – but not punished – the FBI for unwarranted digital database searches involving American citizens.” That the FBI opened this “assessment” on CWA on an unwarranted basis is beyond dispute. Did it also access authorities for foreign intelligence to surveil CWA as well? We can’t tell from the FOIA, since the FBI redacted all the databases that were searched.
Rep. Jim Jordan, the Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee, fired off a recent letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray about such “charity assessments.”
“This document raises serious questions about the FBI’s targeting of domestic civil society organizations on the basis of a third-party opinion, and not any credible allegation of a crime,” Jordan wrote. He asked the FBI to provide unredacted documents, a staff-level briefing, and information about all such “charity assessments” from January 2016 to the present.
The information is required by Rep. Jordan by the close of business on August 24.
One doesn’t have to agree with Concerned Women for America to be bothered by the FBI’s actions. The chilling effect of such investigations could impact the First Amendment rights of organizations across the ideological spectrum, from CWA to Black Lives Matter and the Human Rights Campaign. PPSA will follow this story and report developments on possible political surveillance under both Democratic and Republican Administrations.