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Reviewing Counterterrorism Training Materials, Biased and Not

Michael German,
Senior Policy Counsel, ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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December 1, 2011

As we noted yesterday, we are pleased that the White House has initiated a government-wide review of counterterrorism training materials, after the ACLU uncovered numerous FBI examples of training materials that falsely and inappropriately portray Arab and Muslim communities as monolithic, alien, backward, violent and supporters of terrorism. Subsequent reports by Wired revealed this problem existed in the Departments of Justice and Defense as well. Documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the ACLU of Northern California and the Asian Law Caucus show that FBI use of these erroneous and biased materials spans from at least 2003 to 2011, and has been an integral part of the agency’s training programs.

Yesterday, a Mother Jones article critiqued our blog post highlighting the White House review. That blog was based on and linked to our previous analysis of biased counterterrorism training materials, and mentioned one of the many examples we had cited before: essays in a textbook called Terrorism & Political Islam: Origins, Ideologies, and Methods (jointly produced by the FBI and the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point), and specifically, our criticism of the conclusion of a particular essay. We stand by the broader points we make in our analysis, including that the textbook contains deeply problematic materials, but we shouldn’t have cited to this specific essay in support of those broader points. The citation focused on a portion of the conclusion, without properly taking into account the content that came before it. We are removing the citation of this essay from our earlier analysis and are updating our blog to reflect that change. We regret the error.

None of this should detract from what we and the author of the essay in question agree upon: we all have an interest in effective counterterrorism training materials that educate law enforcement personnel based on facts and empirically sound research, not religious animus or biased viewpoints. Biased and factually flawed training for law enforcement and intelligence agents can only lead to biased policing, which is reflected in other documents we released regarding the FBI’s racial and ethnic mapping program. And law enforcement agents trained to equate religion or religiosity with terrorism will unfairly cast suspicion on innocent Americans, leading to civil rights violations and misdirected investigations. The American Muslim community has been subjected to inappropriate law enforcement questioning and surveillance and the infiltration of mosques by informants, among other abuses.

We look forward to the results of the government’s review of its training materials and continued constructive dialogue on these critical issues that we and others have helped to uncover.

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