FBI officials refuse to disclose the identities or backgrounds of a trio of outside Islamic experts it recently used to scrub the agency's counter-terrorism training materials of information deemed offensive to Muslim advocacy groups.
That refusal concerns some on Capitol Hill who worry that the process could sacrifice legitimate national security interests to political correctness demands if the wrong people do the censoring.
The agency’s silence also worries representatives of influential Islamic-American groups that contend U.S. counter-terrorism efforts are hampered by officially sanctioned “Islamophobia.”
The overhaul followed claims by Islamic activists last September that the materials used to train FBI counter-terrorism agents used offensive language and depictions of Muslims, including an assertion that devout Muslims are more prone to be terrorists.
The scrubbing was done by an internal review panel that included two FBI officials working alongside the anonymous trio of Islamic consultants to remove references to Muslims deemed inappropriate, either because they lacked accuracy, employed stereotypes or were too vague.
Agency officials said only about 700 pages among about 160,000 pages reviewed were removed from the manuals.
The agency won’t say, however, what specific materials were removed or altered, or discuss the standards used in balancing legitimate law enforcement tactics against civil rights concerns.
That leaves some in Congress worried that the bureau will go too far to appease its critics, including at least two organizations with past ties to a terrorist front group, according to Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-TX.
Gohmert is vice-chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security. The full committee will hear testimony from FBI Director Robert Mueller on May 9.
Gohmert said the FBI’s history of working with groups like Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) in the name of “community outreach” raises the concern that people tied to those organizations may have had a hand in determining how counter-terror agents are trained.
Both groups have been linked in court documents to the terrorist groups known as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.
“Our thought is the reason they are reluctant to disclose who did the review and the cleansing is that these were people who cannot be trusted, who could not pass a security check,” said Gohmert.
He added that the FBI won’t provide information even to members of Congress or the judiciary committee staff. “I can’t think of a reason that they would not be willing to discuss it other than that.”
FBI spokesman Christopher Allen refused to identify the trio, but he told The Washington Examiner that the review process was separate from the outreach efforts to Muslim-American community groups by Mueller and other agency officials.
“The core review team included FBI and non-FBI personnel with academic training in areas of Islamic studies and Arab history,” Allen said.
The FBI has a policy of not dealing with CAIR on non-investigative matters. It has no such policy regarding ISNA. The bureau also draws a distinction between dealing with individuals affiliated with those groups and the organizations themselves.
Officials with CAIR and ISNA were among the most vocal in pressuring the FBI to overhaul its training program, after some of the documents were made public in media reports last September.
ISNA’s president, Imam Mohamed Magid, participated in a series of meetings with bureau officials about the revisions, including a February 2012 session with Mueller.
Both ISNA and CAIR were named as unindicted co-conspirators with the Holy Land Foundation For Relief and Development in a scheme to raise more than $12 million for the Palestinian terror group Hamas during a 2007 federal conspiracy trial in Texas.
Court documents identify both CAIR and ISNA as having been affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood’s U.S. offshoot. No one from either group was charged with a crime, but the top officers of the Holy Land Foundation were ultimately convicted on all counts and sentenced to life terms in prison.
Magid and other ISNA representatives participated in several meetings with either FBI or Department of Justice officials on the training issue since last September, said ISNA spokeswoman Sarah Thompson.
But Magid and the others had no role in reviewing any of the materials or the standards that would be used to judge them, Thompson said. They also were not told the identities of the outside Islamic experts, and had no role in selecting them, she said.
“We saw our role as to rebuild that trust and to ensure the FBI was not being trained in ways that were discriminatory,” Thompson said. “We were not asked to participate in the review of any of the documents or in setting these guidelines in any way.”
A CAIR spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
The FBI’s secrecy is not sitting well with other Muslim-American groups, which praise the bureau’s public condemnation of inappropriate training material it had been using but remain skeptical the agency is committed to change.
“They want us to accept the fact that they’ve done this and it’s not going to happen again, but they have given us no evidence at all,” said Omar Tewfik, spokesman for the Arab-American Institute, one of several groups that participated in the meetings with FBI officials.
Mark Flatten is an Examiner staff writer.