FBI training material said agents had the “ability to bend or suspend the law and impinge on freedoms of others,” but that language has now been removed, according to a briefing the bureau recently provided to Congress.
The language suggesting that agents could bend the law was contained in 876 pages of training materials about Muslims and Arab-Americans the FBI deemed to be offensive or inaccurate and removed after a review of about 160,000 pages of such material over the past six months, according to aides present at the briefing.
Also removed was the admonition that agents should never stare at or shake hands with an Asian, and the assertion that Arabs had “Jekyll and Hyde” personalities making them more likely to have “outbursts and loss of control” than even-keeled Westerners.
A description of some of the material deemed inappropriate was contained in a letter sent on Tuesday by Senator Richard Durbin to FBI Director Robert Mueller. The letter was first reported by Wired magazine, which last year published similar leaked training materials that prompted the FBI’s broader review.
Michael Kortan, a spokesman for the FBI, confirmed the removal of the language suggesting “the ability to bend or suspend the law,” which he described as “inartful.” However — pointing to a set of talking points that apparently accompanied the material — he said the trainers meant that under normal circumstances, agents have the ability to eavesdrop legally on private communications if they obtain wiretap orders from a court.
“I cannot emphasize enough that we disagree with the implication that training attendees, who were analysts, were led to believe that we actually bend or suspend the law or anything like that,” Kortan said.
In his letter, Durbin called on Mueller to provide the Senate Judiciary Committee with copies of the full set of documents and to reassign those officials responsible for the offensive material.
“It is unclear that the FBI has taken sufficient steps to undo the damage done by the offensive training materials,” Durbin said.
Durbin also wrote that that Mueller had told him in December that the FBI’s “training review would identify FBI agents who received inappropriate training.” In a briefing on March 22 provided to Senate staff members, FBI officials said they had not identified the agents who had seen the materials, according to the letter.
“This could harm counterterrorism efforts by leading FBI agents to target individuals based on their religion or ethnicity, rather than suspicion of wrongdoing,” Durbin said.
Last week, the Department of Justice and the FBI posted short memorandums about “guiding principles” for the training materials. The documents said that such materials must be “consistent with the Constitution” and agency values, including by not disparaging groups or individuals based on characteristics like race, religion, or national origin.
The memorandums also say that supervisors must assess trainers for professionalism and to make sure that they are knowledgeable experts in the topic, and that they should review written materials being used for instruction.
In his letter, Durbin questioned whether issuing those memorandums constituted sufficient reforms, noting that the action fell short of creating a new curriculum on the topic.
After Wired published its account of FBI counterterrorism materials last year, Attorney General Eric Holder testified before Congress that the documents undermined the government’s “substantial outreach efforts that we have made and really have a negative impact on our ability to communicate effectively.”