Among the MAGA flags and “Stop the Steal” signs that festooned the sea of rioters who invaded the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 was the abundant stamp of another conspiracy movement—QAnon—that nursed the election-fraud lies that fueled the crowd.
Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-FL) was already struck at how the Capitol attack demonstrated the growing influence of conspiracy theories like QAnon—a wide-ranging set of unfounded beliefs encompassing election lies and fantasies of depravity by those in power—which drove adherents to a violent plot to keep Donald Trump in power by any means necessary.
Then came the report that at least 22 current or former members of the U.S. military or law enforcement were found to have been at or near the Capitol attack on Jan. 6, according to a Jan. 15 review by the Associated Press, with more reportedly under investigation by federal officials.
A former Pentagon official, Murphy quickly drew up a bill designed to block QAnon believers, and other conspiracy followers, from obtaining the security clearances required to access classified federal government information.
“What we discovered was that there was a shocking number of people involved in that insurrection who seemingly live normal lives, working in government and law enforcement and the military,” Murphy told The Daily Beast. “It’s really dangerous for individuals who hold these types of views to receive a security clearance and access to classified information… if any Americans participated in the Capitol attack, or if they subscribe to these dangerous anti-government views of QAnon, then they have no business being entrusted with our nation's secrets.”
Murphy’s bill, one of the first legislative efforts crafted in response to the terror on display two weeks ago, is a sign of how sharply the policy agenda of Congress and President Joe Biden in the coming weeks and months has shifted with respect to right-wing extremism.
At her Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Avril Haines, Biden’s choice for intelligence chief, pledged to produce a public threat assessment of QAnon, using intelligence compiled by the 18 agencies under her umbrella as director of national intelligence. And Alejandro Mayorkas, the nominee to head up the Department of Homeland Security, also vowed to ramp up the agency’s efforts to tackle domestic extremism in his Tuesday confirmation hearing.
Murphy’s bill is another concrete sign of how much more seriously Capitol Hill is taking the QAnon movement specifically, which—aside from a symbolic House resolution condemning the conspiracy in October—has gotten scant attention from lawmakers as it spread around the country in recent years. Murphy, a moderate Democrat with a track record of passing bills with Republican backing, said she is courting GOP colleagues to cosponsor the bill and expects it will gain bipartisan support.
Jared Holt, a research fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab and an expert in right-wing extremism, said it was “refreshing” to see bills like Murphy’s emerge. “Congress is way behind the ball, and any sort of meaningful confrontation with the issue is going to require a good deal of catch-up,” Holt told The Daily Beast.
The legislation, titled the Security Clearance Improvement Act of 2021, requires applicants looking to obtain or renew their federal security clearances to disclose if they participated in the Jan. 6 rally in Washington—or another “Stop the Steal” event—or if they “knowingly engaged in activities conducted by an organization or movement that spreads conspiracy theories and false information about the U.S. government.”
That question would be included among the other questions asked of applicants in the lengthy questionnaire, called the Standard Form 86, required to gain a clearance, which, under federal law, “shall be granted only to employees… for whom an appropriate investigation has been completed and whose personal and professional history affirmatively indicates loyalty to the United States, strength of character, trustworthiness, honesty, reliability, discretion, and sound judgment.”
But Denver Riggleman, a former Republican congressman and intelligence official who was the GOP’s loudest QAnon critic during his time in Congress, said that the SF-86 already asks applicants if they had ever supported an overthrow of the U.S. government. Riggleman—who said he’s filled out the SF-86 “six or seven times”—argued that adding a question to screen for QAnon beliefs might be redundant, become a slippery slope to encompassing other conspiracies, or ensnare people who don’t believe in the most extreme theories.
But Riggleman, who cosponsored the QAnon condemnation resolution with Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ), agreed that security clearance screening needs to be updated for the realities of 2021. “Instead of an overarching QAnon [question], look at the most damaging parts of the disinformation plague we have,” he suggested, proposing language that asks about any association with “deep state cabals and coups” and other phrases common with far-right conspiracies.
“Because disinformation, it encapsulates so many ridiculous notions,” said Riggleman. “If you had someone go to ‘Stop the Steal,’ and thought there were white vans with burning ballots, that’s a bit different than thinking babies were harvested in Epstein’s temple.”
Another issue with a question on an applicant’s QAnon association, of course, is that they might not answer it truthfully, knowing it could imperil their chance of securing a clearance. And in recent days, QAnon threads have urged followers to “camouflage” and avoid using the term QAnon in order to evade detection in the aftermath of Jan. 6, said Travis View, an expert on the movement.
Still, with background checkers able to screen social media and other channels for support of such conspiracy theories, they could ascertain whether applicants answered Murphy’s proposed question untruthfully—which, on its own, would be grounds to revoke or block the issuing of a security clearance. It is also a federal crime to lie on the SF-86.
Holt said the bill has noble goals but expressed concern that it could be implemented in a way that roots out QAnon adherents and other extremists from positions of national security importance. “QAnon is such a decentralized movement—it’s more of a digital oriented community,” he said. “I don’t know if being part of Pepe’s united Facebook group would get picked up on this [background check.]”
“So many people are looking for a silver bullet solution to this, but it’s this weird, complex, nuanced thing,” Holt continued. “It will take a multitude of actions to address meaningfully.”
Murphy would not disagree. It is not lost on her that she is proposing this legislation when at least one colleague, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), was elected while having professed support for QAnon. Other Republicans have reportedly been linked to the organizers of the Jan. 6 rally.
Under Murphy’s proposal, these lawmakers might be barred from access to sensitive information—were they not members of Congress, who merely have to sign documents after their swearing-in in order to begin receiving briefings on classified national security and intelligence topics.
“It's a privilege that's afforded to us through our position,” said Murphy. “But I think this privilege should have its limits. And I certainly hope that this starts a conversation about holding accountable those members of Congress who share these extreme views and potentially, barring them from accessing classified information, especially if they have previously participated in efforts to overthrow the government, or have been motivated by their belief in these conspiracies to harm the United States or any of our elected officials.”
Riggleman agreed that Murphy’s bill could get GOP support, in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack that touched every member of Congress. But he couldn’t help but recall his own experience working with Malinowski on the QAnon resolution last year—and believes similar dynamics are at play as Congress embarks on a real policy effort to counter violent extremism.
“It was really unfortunate. No one wanted to even identify the problem, to have a policy discussion about it,” he said. “I was the only Republican to speak on the floor for it. I gotta tell you, that was a very lonely day.”
House GOP leadership, said Riggleman, fought him on the push, saying it was a First Amendment issue—a “bullshit” argument, in his words. “It was going to isolate their constituents and cause them to lose a primary, and they didn’t want to deal with it.”
If he and Malinowski had moved to pass that resolution today, Riggleman predicted, “I still think we’d get a basketball team worth of people” on the GOP side willing to speak in favor of it. “But there are three basketball teams worth of crazy in the Republican Party right now.”