How Did Anti-Muslim Bias Seep Into FBI Training?

Sep 29, 2011
Originally published on September 29, 2011 11:00 am

The first inkling that something was amiss in the counterterrorism training given to local and federal law enforcement came in March. That's when NPR reported on the cottage industry of independent counterterrorism trainers who signed up to teach local and federal law enforcement officials about terrorism. The report warned that the instructors were not being properly vetted and some were presenting skewed views about Muslim-Americans and their potential links to terrorism.

Then, last month, Wired magazine reported on a counterterrorism training session at the FBI training center in Quantico, Va., that was led by an FBI employee. The slides of the PowerPoint presentation obtained by Wired magazine made clear that the instructor was teaching agents not only that Islam was a violent religion, but also was erroneously linking religiosity to terrorism. He said the more religious a Muslim in this country was, the more he should be seen as a potential suspect.

Complaints From Agents

NPR has obtained real-time emails from agents who were attending that controversial class at Quantico this April. What the emails indicate is that at least some of those in that class objected to the biased information they were getting and they reached out both to experts and to supervisors to complain about the curriculum.

One email said that the Prophet Muhammad was being portrayed as a warring military leader. It also cited an instructor as saying that a "true Muslim" had to support or take part in the killing of non-Muslims. The instructor also told the class, according to a handful of attendees, that Muhammad was an epileptic and the Quran didn't come to him in a series of heavenly visions, but instead was actually part of an epileptic fit.

It is unclear how the agents in the class actually registered their complaints to the FBI brass - whether it was face-to-face discussion or in emails to their supervisors. But officials confirm that they heard about the class last April and made moves to remedy the situation. There were multiple meetings last spring in which the complaints were addressed, one official said. And the instructor of that class was removed from the training program.

Origins Of Bias

The question that everyone is asking — and the FBI is trying to answer now — is how the Muslim bias crept into the training program in the first place.

About two months before the class started, FBI officials tell NPR, the bureau had already started a review of all its training programs – from interrogations to Tasers. They were looking for places to economize ahead of what they expected to be brutal cuts to the FBI budget. The counterterrorism training was, the officials said, given a low priority because the FBI didn't expect funding for that kind of training to get slashed. What isn't clear is whether the urgency to take a look at the program changed after the agents lodged complaints about the April class at Quantico.

NPR has learned the FBI did two things to at least stem the damage the training controversy has wrought. Just last week, the bureau sent out an email requesting that all training materials that related to religion and culture be sent to headquarters and essentially taken offline until they could be vetted. Officials plan to go through each and every training module and look for instances of bias or inaccuracies that, until now, might have slipped through the cracks. The FBI has also asked all 56 of its field offices to do an internal scrub of all their counterterrorism training to look for hints of possible bias. The recall suggests that the FBI is not entirely sure what it is teaching in its counterterrorism curriculum.

Officials close to the process say part of the problem is one of structure. The counterterrorism training division has a lot of autonomy. It is essentially in charge of putting together its own training module and then is supposed to find a way to fit that training into the broader curriculum for agents at Quantico. Because of the way it is structured, the vetting process for the counterterrorism curriculum was minimal. While the FBI has ordered an internal audit to look at how this happened, officials said they believe this could be the crux of the problem.

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

And let's follow up now on some awkward discoveries about federal counterterrorism training. Material from FBI courses gives agents a particular view of Muslims in America. It suggests that even mainstream Muslim Americans could be suspect. Rather than being told that terrorists were the problem, some agents were apparently told that Muslims were the problem.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has covered this training for months and has learned more details about it. She's on the line. Dina, good morning.

DINA TEMPLE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: And let's try to remember here how this controversy has developed.

TEMPLE: Well, we first got an inkling that there was something wrong with law enforcement training back in March. And that's when we reported on a Muslim-American employee at the Department of Homeland Security in Ohio who was fired after he was singled out in a counterterrorism training class as a terrorism suspect. And the accusation was false but he still lost his job. And it turns out that this kind of Islamophobia isn't so isolated.

And it came out recently in Wired magazine that a counterterrorism training session at the FBI training center in Quantico, Virginia was teaching agents that Islam was a violent religion and that basically if you are a Muslim and religious, you should be seen as suspect.

INSKEEP: And this is being said to agents in training to go out and work with the public?

TEMPLE: Exactly. FBI agents with two or three years of experience at the bureau, and these were classes on Islamic doctrine that talked about the relationship between Islam and terrorism.

INSKEEP: And let's be fair here, there are different interpretations of Islam, some of them certainly would seem to be violent interpretations of Islam, but most Muslims have argued that overwhelming majorities of Muslims are peaceful and that they have a peaceful religion. So did the training overstate what you can know about the different varieties of this religion?

TEMPLE: Well, it overstated the links between terrorism and Islam. And here's what's interesting. We obtained real-time emails from agents who are actually attending that class in Quantico, and at least some of them objected to the skewed information about Muslims and Islam that they were getting, and some were actually outraged. And we understand that they reported it up the line to supervisors at the FBI, saying that the class seemed to be teaching anti-Muslim bias.

And the instructor was saying things like the Prophet Mohammed was an epileptic and the Koran didn't come to him in a series of visions; it actually was part of an epileptic fit, that kind of thing.

INSKEEP: Agents complained about this back in April, months ago?

TEMPLE: Exactly, and among other things ? let me give you another example - one email dated when the class was still going on ? going on ? starts: I'm presently at Quantico training and our first block covered Islamic doctrine. And then the writer complains about the anti-Muslim bias in the instruction. And he actually quotes the instructor, who was an FBI agent, and basically the gist was that there was no place for moderation in Islam. That's what the instructor was saying.

INSKEEP: So when the students in the classes complained about what they were being told, did the FBI respond to those complaints?

TEMPLE: Well, it's unclear exactly how they responded. I mean, the FBI was revamping training programs across the board back in February in anticipation of big budget cuts. And they were looking at everything from interviewing techniques to tasers. But counterterrorism training, apparently, was pretty low on the priority list because they didn't see it as broken.

What we don't know is if it got moved up in the list after complaints came in. You know, officials did say that the FBI agent who was teaching the class was barred from teaching at Quantico right away and basically hasn't taught any more classes there. And then what we've learned is that just a couple of days ago the FBI did two things.

It sent an email out requesting all training materials that have anything to do with religion or culture be sent back to the bureau, everything for the past two years, so they can review it. And they plan to go through each and every one of these training modules to see if there were other instances of bias or other problems.

And the FBI has also asked all 56 of its field offices out in the country to do an internal scrub of all their counterterrorism training to see if this problem shows up somewhere else.

INSKEEP: Does the fact that the FBI is asking for this review mean that people at headquarters realize that they really don't know what's being taught out there?

TEMPLE: Possibly. I mean part of the problem is one of structure. The counterterrorism division has a lot of autonomy and it's in charge of its own training. And it was supposed to basically form a curriculum that would be inserted into the broader training at Quantico. And because of the way it's structured, the vetting process is pretty minimal and that appears to be the crux of the problem.

So they're pulling in all these training materials and it sounds like they just didn't have a very good handle on what was being taught in these classes.

INSKEEP: Dina, thanks very much.

TEMPLE: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.