2012-03-28 "FBI Taught Agents They Could ‘Bend or Suspend the Law’" by Spencer Ackerman
UPDATE: The FBI has released the memo in question. Read it here.
The FBI taught its agents that they could sometimes “bend or suspend the law” in their hunt for terrorists and criminals. Other FBI instructional material, discovered during a months-long review of FBI counterterrorism training, warned agents against shaking hands with “Asians” and said Arabs were prone to “Jekyll & Hyde temper tantrums.”
These are just some of the disturbing results of the FBI’s six-month review into how the Bureau trained its counterterrorism agents. That review, now complete, did not result in a single disciplinary action for any instructor. Nor did it mandate the retraining of any FBI agent exposed to what the Bureau concedes was inappropriate material. Nor did it look at any intelligence reports that might have been influenced by the training. All that has a powerful senator saying that the review represents a “failure to adequately address” the problem.
“This is not an effective way to protect the United States,” Sen. Richard Durbin, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee overseeing the FBI, tells Danger Room about the inappropriate FBI counterterrorism training. “It’s stunning that these things could be said to members of our FBI in training. It will not make them more effective in their work and won’t make America safer.”
At the least, Durbin adds, “those responsible for some of the worst parts of this should be reassigned. I want FBI agents who were exposed to some of these comments to at least have a chance to be spoken to and given valid, positive information that can help them.”
One FBI PowerPoint — disclosed in a letter Durbin sent to FBI Director Robert Mueller on Tuesday (.PDF) [http://www.wired.com/images_blogs/dangerroom/2012/03/FBI-training-letter.pdf] and shared with Danger Room — stated: “Under certain circumstances, the FBI has the ability to bend or suspend the law to impinge on the freedom of others.” An incredulous Durbin told Danger Room, “Time and time again when that is done, it has not made us safer.” Like other excerpts from FBI documents Danger Room reviewed for this story, it was not dated and did not include additional context explaining what those “circumstances” might be.
FBI spokesman Christopher Allen did not dispute the documents’ authenticity. He said he would not share the full documents with Danger Room, and was “unable to provide” additional information about their context, including any indication of how many FBI agents were exposed to them.
“Of the approximately 160,000 pages of training material reviewed, less than one percent contained factually inaccurate or imprecise information or used stereotypes,” Allen told Danger Room. “But mistakes were made, and we are correcting those mistakes. Through this review process, we recognized that we lacked a centralized process to ensure all training materials were reviewed and validated. We are addressing that gap so this does not happen again.”
The FBI’s counterterrorism training review was prompted by a Danger Room series revealing the Bureau taught agents that “mainstream” Muslims were “violent“; that Islam made its followers want to commit “genocide“; and that an FBI intelligence analyst compared Islam to the Death Star from Star Wars. The review led the bureau to remove hundreds of pages of documents from its training course [http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2012/02/hundreds-fbi-documents-muslims/].
On Friday, the FBI announced the results of its internal review. After six months of internal inquiry, it released a statement instructing that “training would conform to constitutional principles” and “emphasize the protection of civil rights and civil liberties.” [http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/training/the-fbis-guiding-principles] Written materials “must be reviewed carefully by supervisory-level personnel possessing an appropriate level of understanding of relevant topics.”
No one who prepared any of the “factually inaccurate or imprecise” instructional material faced disciplinary action. “All FBI employees who prepared inaccurate, imprecise, or stereotyped materials were interviewed,” Allen said. “It was made clear to them what was wrong with the materials and why they were not acceptable for FBI training.”
That’s left Sen. Durbin dissatisfied.
On Tuesday, Durbin wrote to FBI Director Mueller objecting to the FBI’s plans not to disclose the results of the inquiry; not to discipline those responsible for the offending documents; to exclude “FBI intelligence analyses of Islam and American Muslims” from the inquiry’s purview; and not to retrain agents who were exposed to the shoddy instructional material.
“If the FBI does not identify agents who received inaccurate information and take steps to retrain them, there is a real risk that agents will be operating on false assumptions about Arab Americans and American Muslims,” Durbin wrote to Mueller. “This could harm counterterrorism efforts by leading FBI agents to target individuals based on their religion or ethnicity, rather than suspicion of wrongdoing.”
A sample of that possibly harmful training comes from a document on “Establishing Relationships,” which instructed: “Never attempt to shake hands with an Asian. Never stare at an Asian. Never try to speak to an Arab female prior to approaching the Arab male first.”
Another document, titled “Control and Temper,” contrasted the “Western Mind” with that of the “Arab World.” The “Western” mind possessed an “even keel” and “outbursts” of emotion were “exceptional.” In the “Arab World,” by contrast, “Outburst and Loss of Control [is] Expected.” A bullet point below asked, “What’s wrong with frequent Jekyll & Hyde temper tantrums?”
Many U.S. Muslims have been under government surveillance since 9/11, even without suspicion of a crime. The FBI has created “geo-maps” of where Muslims around the U.S. congregate and do business, untethered to specific criminal investigations [http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2011/10/fbi-geomaps-muslims/]. The New York Police Department has performed similar surveillance on Muslim communities in New York City, as an extensive Associated Press inquiry has revealed.
Durbin said he wants to give Mueller, with whom he has a “positive working relationship,” a chance to respond to his letter before taking any further steps with the Judiciary Committee to compel additional FBI action. But he expressed surprise that the FBI could have taught its agents that “bending or suspending” the law was sometimes acceptable.
“I cannot imagine that was actually said,” Durbin said, adding that the FBI provided him no context as to what circumstances might justify acting outside the law. “It creates a license for activity that could on its face be illegal, and certainly inconsistent with our values.”