Posted by on July 21, 2011 in Blog

On March 9th, 2011, National Public Radio (NPR) published a story entitled “New Concern About Bias In Counterterror Training.” The article sheds new light on potentially serious abuses of power and position in the training of local law enforcement. As part of an ongoing effort to protect the American people from terrorism, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has begun sending so-called counterterrorism experts to local communities where they provide instruction to law enforcement personnel on how best to identify and combat terrorism. While in theory the program sounds like a good idea, in practice it leaves a bit to be desired.

Army Lt. Col Reid Sawyer, a career intelligence officer runs the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Sawyer regularly instructs fire marshals, chiefs, firefighters, local beat cops and federal agents in the art of counterterrorism, and has been doing so for nearly 20 years. According to Sawyer, who is intimately aware of the program facilitated by DHS, “You’ve got a lot of individuals who are not academically qualified to be instructing in these venues, and more importantly they are speaking with authority, which empowers the audience with knowledge that is not necessarily accurate.” Sawyer added, “These short courses tend to stereotype Muslims in a way that just isn’t helpful.”

One case study from Columbus, Ohio crystalizes the issue. Last year, the Columbus Police Department hired a team that included “a retired FBI agent to help teach police and local official how to understand and recognize possible signs of terrorism.” The course was stopped after the first day when it became clear that the so-called “trainers” started making “blanket statements about who might be involved in terrorist activity.” 

Obviously this raises serious concerns. Sam Rascoff, a law professor at NYU, perhaps put it best when he said, That’s not the kind of information that is going to make our cops or federal officials smarter about terrorism… that sort of stuff is going to paint the wrong sort of picture and cause them to go looking in the wrong places for the wrong sorts of things [emphasis mine].As if racial profiling and stereotyping aren’t bad enough, the program is being implemented with U.S. tax payer dollars, including obviously from the Arab American citizens who often end up being the very people whose identity is publicly slandered. A second article published just a few days ago by NPR shines even more light on this aspect of the story.

The piece examines the case of 59-year-old Jordanian–American Omar al-Omari. According to the article, Omari is described as your typical college professor: “tweed jacket, button-down shirt, thick round glasses, drinking coffee.” Professor Omari recalls the event, “I received a call from one of the attendees of this conference in which I was told my name was used repeatedly during the training. Apparently I was labeled as a suspect. They personalized the attacks. There was a promise to dig into my background, and basically, as an Arab Muslim American, they thought I’m a suspect.” 

The training session led to considerable public slander about Mr. Omari which ultimately cost him his livelihood. Mr. Omari has gone on record saying, “I lost a lot of things over this… I lost respect, dignity, reputation - everything really was connected with that, and definitely, you know, how could you defend yourself?” AAI applauds NPR’s reporting on this issue, which perhaps more than anything demonstrates that the public is finally tuning in to how exactly our federal government is conducting its counterterrorism efforts, and the high potential for abuse that follows from poor planning, and lack of proper oversight. Stay tuned to this issue, more is surely to come.

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