Pentagon memo fishing for counterterrorism training standards leaned heavily on WIRED reporter’s assertions

J.E. Dyer Contributor
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The war on counterterrorism training inside the FBI shifted to a new battlefield in October — the Department of Defense — with an unclassified memo from the Joint Chiefs of Staff asking subordinate commands and agencies to explain the procedures they use to evaluate Countering Violent Extremism training. And that memo appears to lean heavily on the criticisms of Spencer Ackerman, a former JournoList member who was fired by The New Republic in 2006 and currently blogs for WIRED’s Danger Room.

The October 14 memo bases that request on “media attention” focused the FBI’s CVE training, and includes one explanatory attachment: an October 5 Ackerman piece titled “Justice Department Official: Muslim ‘Juries’ Threaten ‘Our Values’.” The memo makes no reference to any specific content in the article, but Ackerman’s story contains this passage:

…the Justice Department is hardly alone in hosting bigoted and counterproductive counterterrorism training. … [A]nti-Islam training material has spread into the military. Some of the Islamophobic presenters hired by the FBI also lecture at premiere schools for military intelligence; at an online university favored by students seeking jobs in U.S. intelligence agencies and with affiliated contractors; and even at the Army’s intellectual center, Fort Leavenworth.

The Joint Chiefs request memo was sent just a few days before Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole confirmed that the Obama administration was “pulling back all training materials used for the law enforcement and national security communities, in order to eliminate all references to Islam that some Muslim groups have claimed are offensive.”

Muslim advocacy organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Muslim Public Affairs Council have complained to U.S. officials about government-sponsored “extremism” training since at least 2010. But the pressure to alter the training and censor fact-based presentations about Islamist extremism ramped up in March 2011. That was about the time when a Washington Monthly article titled “How We Train Our Cops to Fear Islam” and a think-tank monograph called “Manufacturing the Muslim Menace” appeared, relating stories of inflammatory comments from trainers under contract to government agencies.

Criticisms leveled at trainers included incensed condemnation from both independent Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman and Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins along with demands for action from the Obama administration.

But some of the criticism was opportunistic. Trainers were quoted from their writings and interviews on unrelated topics, and those quotes were presented as though they were expressed during training sessions. Also quoted were listeners’ interpretations of trainer comments, rather than what the trainers actually said.

Spencer Ackerman began a barrage of articles on the topic in September, depicting a startlingly “Islamophobic” series of CVE training events for government employees. In response, the FBI promised in September to review all its training materials for “anti-Muslim” bias.

In October the Department of Homeland Security issued new guidelines for evaluating and selecting CVE training, including some seemingly focused on achieving a politically satisfactory appearance.

Agencies, the guidelines state, should choose training that “uses examples to demonstrate that terrorists and violent extremists vary in ethnicity, race, gender, and religion.” They are warned not to “use training that equates religious expression, protests, or other constitutionally protected activity with criminal activity.”

Counterterrorism expert Stephen Coughlin told The Daily Caller that the DHS guidelines amount to “a direct order not to do intelligence analysis.”

Some observers have already expressed concern that a CVE training clamp-down in the military will open the door to another “Fort Hood massacre.”

“If counter-terrorism professionals are not allowed to acknowledge that a person motivated by jihadist ideology, or by such Islamist ideologues as Sayyid Qutb or Abu’l-A’la Mawdudi, may be inclined towards acts of violence against Americans,” asks the Westminster Institute, “how will they be able to identify and deter potential attackers?”

The October 14 memo’s only salient point is that subordinates should provide their current process of vetting CVE trainers to the Joint Chiefs. It contains no guidance or instruction on what the correct screening process should be for trainers.

This apparently open-ended fishing expedition is atypical for a Defense Department action memo. But on November 15, CAIR announced that it had filed at least 87 records requests with U.S. government agencies for information on their CVE training, perhaps providing a hint about the October memo’s genesis.

Ackerman published his own account of the memo’s significance on Tuesday, describing the Joint Chiefs memo as a reaction to his own reporting.

CAIR may find its relationship with federal agencies curtailed somewhat in the coming days. A continuing resolution signed by president Obama in November contained an obscure provision enforcing the FBI’s prohibitions against non-investigative cooperation with the unindicted co-conspirators of terrorist groups.

CAIR and the Islamic Society of North America are among those groups. Both were associated through law enforcement investigation with Hamas.

PJ Media has reported that despite this prohibition, FBI General Counsel Valerie Caproni continued to meet with CAIR through at least early 2011.

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval intelligence officer living in Southern California. Her work has appeared at The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,” Patheos and The Weekly Standard online. She blogs at The Optimistic Conservative.