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Thursday May 31, 2012

Racial Bias in FBI Training Materials: It’s Worse than You Thought

Posted by Frank Matt at 2:02 pm

In recent months, AAI has reported extensively on the factual inaccuracies and flagrant bigotry contained in the FBI’s training materials related to American Muslims. The FBI has responded to public outcry by initiating a review of its more egregious training materials on Islam and Arab culture, and reportedly removed over 800 problematic documents from its programs. Despite this purge of materials, it now appears as though documents related to American Muslims were merely the tip of the iceberg. Newly released FBI materials obtained by the ACLU through the Freedom of Information Act reveal that problems of misinformation and racial bias are not limited to materials about American Muslims, but are pervasive throughout the FBI’s training programs.

Newly released training materials and intelligence notes on subjects like “Black Separatist Extremism,” “American Islamic Extremism,” and Latino gangs are wrought with factual inaccuracies, erroneous comparisons, and racial prejudice. FBI domestic terrorism training presentations on "Black Separatist Extremists" compare decades-old examples of violence by groups like the Black Liberation Army with controversial beliefs expressed by a number of different present day groups to suggest, without evidence, that these groups pose a similar threat of violence. The materials’ broad descriptions could cover many different groups from the fringe to the mainstream, exposing them to heightened government scrutiny. Other counterterrorism training presentations indicate that the FBI has also invented a new class of domestic terrorists in 2009 called "American Islamic Extremists," which it describes as American Muslims who mix "Islamic theology with some levels of black separatism, anarchism, and racial rhetoric." Such highlighted groups have little in common aside from their racial identities, in effect encouraging FBI trainees to use racial profiling instead of fact-based investigations.

The manner in which FBI agents are trained has a very real effect on how they conduct investigations. In fact, several FBI intelligence notes obtained by the ACLU demonstrate a causal link between the way the FBI trains agents on subjects like terrorism and racial profiling in investigations. Intelligence notes from the Atlanta FBI on “Black Separatism” in 2009 and a from the Newark FBI on the MS-13 gang in 2008 show the FBI targeting and mapping entire racial communities in their efforts to pursue nebulous threats. The Atlanta intelligence note charts the black population growth in the area over time, as though such information has a bearing on the number of “black separatist extremists.” The Newark intelligence note, claiming to analyze the threat from the MS-13 gang, contains a county-by-county analysis of the Latino population in New Jersey. These declassified intelligence notes show the significance of the content of FBI Training materials. If FBI agents are trained to scrutinize populations based on their race, they will. If their training materials contain misinformation, these factual inaccuracies will become the basis for actual investigations that affect the lives of real Americans.

It is also worth noting that the FBI’s review and purge of offensive materials on American Muslims was limited to training materials, not intelligence documents. It is clearly shown in these recently-released intelligence notes from Newark and Atlanta that such documents often contain the same troublesome information as the FBI’s training materials. If 800 problematic pages were found in the FBI’s training materials alone, it’s disturbing to think how deeply the misinformation extends into the FBI’s internal and intelligence documents, which the FBI has so far refused to review.

The parallels between these latest materials and the recently reviewed materials on Arab Americans and Muslims are eerie. In both cases, the FBI was trained to pursue a conjured threat from the unrelated (and 1st amendment-protected) activities of groups with incredibly disparate views and goals. When this occurs, the FBI grants itself a false justification for surveillance of any group under its nebulous labels, using race or religion as proxies for evidence of wrongdoing. They are also similar in that they reveal wasted time, misdirected resources, and ineffectual methods for preventing violence. In the case of “black separatists,” not a single incident is listed by the FBI on its list of major terrorism cases and the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database reveals that the last act of violence attributed to “black separatists” was over two decades ago. Somehow, the FBI still finds it worthwhile to train its agents with outdated and erroneous information, who then proceed to map and scrutinize entire African American communities.

In March of this year, AAI President Jim Zogby wrote a column that fervently expressed the need for the FBI to correct its course on how it trains its agents. The problems of racial bias and misinformation Dr. Zogby describes have since been revealed to be even more broad-based and ubiquitous in the FBI’s training and conduct. These revelations make corrective action by the FBI all the more essential. It also makes it all the more important that all American regardless of race or religion stand with those targeted communities against bigotry, profiling, and simply poor policing by the FBI. 

Tagged as Issues, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, FBI

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