The FBI for the first time has identified fringe conspiracy theories – think “Pizzagate” – as a domestic terrorist threat.
The FBI intelligence bulletin from the bureau’s Phoenix field office, dated May 30, 2019, and obtained by Yahoo News, describes “conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists,” as a growing threat, and notes that it is the first such report to do so. It lists a number of arrests, including some that haven’t been publicized, related to violent incidents motivated by fringe beliefs.
The document specifically mentions QAnon, a shadowy network that believes in a deep state conspiracy against President Trump, and Pizzagate, the theory that a pedophile ring including Clinton associates was being run out of the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant (which didn’t actually have a basement).
“The FBI assesses these conspiracy theories very likely will emerge, spread, and evolve in the modern information marketplace, occasionally driving both groups and individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts,” the document states. It also goes on to say the FBI believes conspiracy theory-driven extremists are likely to increase during the 2020 presidential election cycle.
The FBI said another factor driving the intensity of this threat is “the uncovering of real conspiracies or cover-ups involving illegal, harmful, or unconstitutional activities by government officials or leading political figures.” The FBI does not specify which political leaders or which cover-ups it was referring to.
President Trump is mentioned by name briefly in the latest FBI document, which notes that the origins of QAnon is the conspiratorial belief that “Q,” allegedly a government official, “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.”
This recent intelligence bulletin comes as the FBI is facing pressure to explain who it considers an extremist, and how the government prosecutes domestic terrorists. In recent weeks the FBI director has addressed domestic terrorism multiple times but did not publicly mention this new conspiracy theorist threat.
The FBI is already under fire for its approach to domestic extremism. In a contentious hearing last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, FBI Director Christopher Wray faced criticism from Democrats who said the bureau was not focusing enough on 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,” Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said. “There is a reference to racism, which I think probably was meant to include that, but nothing more specific.”
Wray told lawmakers the FBI had done away with separate categories for black identity extremists and white supremacists, and said the bureau was instead now focusing on “racially motivated” violence.
The FBI acknowledges conspiracy theory-driven violence is not new, but says it’s gotten worse with advances in technology combined with an increasingly partisan political landscape in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election.
“The advent of 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 document says.
The bulletin says it is intended to provide guidance and “inform discussions within law enforcement as they relate to potentially harmful conspiracy theories and domestic extremism.”
Identifying conspiracy theories as a threat could be a political lightning rod, since Trump has been accused of promulgating some of them, with his frequent references to a deep state and his praise in 2015 for Alex Jones, who runs the conspiracy site InfoWars.
While the FBI intelligence bulletin does not mention Jones or InfoWars by name, it does mention some of the conspiracy theories frequently associated with the far-right radio host, in particular the concept of the New World Order.
Jones claimed the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, in which 26 children were killed, was a hoax, a false flag operation intended as a pretext for the government to seize or outlaw firearms.
The families of a number of victims have sued Jones for defamation, saying his conspiracy-mongering contributed to death threats and online abuse they have received.
While Trump has never endorsed Sandy Hook denialism, he was almost up until the 2016 election the most high-profile promoter of the birther conspiracy that claimed former President Obama was not born in the United States.
He later dropped his claim, and deflected criticism by pointing the finger at Hillary Clinton.
He said her campaign had given birth to the conspiracy, and Trump “finished it.”
There is no evidence that Clinton started the birther conspiracy.