New Concern About Bias In Counterterrorism Training Experts have been watching with alarm the phenomenon of officials with limited experience selling themselves as terrorism instructors. A new report by a Boston-based group says independent organizations that provide counterterrorism training to law enforcement officials often stereotype Muslims.
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New Concern About Bias In Counterterror Training

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New Concern About Bias In Counterterror Training

New Concern About Bias In Counterterror Training

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We have a story this morning on law enforcement and counterterrorism. It involves training courses for police and other local agencies around the country. Some critics say there is now a cottage industry of self-styled counterterrorism experts who are giving a skewed view of Muslims in America. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Lieutenant Colonel Reid Sawyer is a career intelligence officer and runs the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. This week, at a training center for the New York Fire Department, Sawyer spoke to 40 marshals, chiefs and firefighters. They're all taking an 11-week terrorism course he's been teaching for the past seven years.

Lieutenant Colonel REID SAWYER (West Point): So the question is, when you are sitting in your firehouses, how do you make sense of the threat that's before you, right?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Sawyer has been giving firefighters and beat cops and federal agents counterterrorism training since 1993. He's considered an example of how this sort of training is supposed to work. So Sawyer has been watching with alarm the phenomenon of officials with limited experience who are selling themselves as terrorism instructors.

Lt. Col. SAWYER: First is you've got a lot of individuals who are not academically qualified to be instructing in these venues. And more importantly, they speak with a sense of authority, which empowers the audiences with knowledge that isn't necessarily accurate.

TEMPLE-RASTON: One case study - Columbus, Ohio.

Deputy Chief RICHARD BASH (Columbus Police Department): My name is Richard Bash. I'm a deputy chief with the Columbus, Ohio division of police.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Richard Bash runs the department's Homeland Security Division. And last year he hired a team, including a retired FBI agent, to help teach his men and other local officials to recognize terrorism. It was supposed to be a two-day training course.

Deputy Chief BASH: The class was stopped the second day because what we found was the information being relayed was not accurate.

TEMPLE-RASTON: What kind of stuff were they talking about?

Deputy Chief BASH: Well, you know, they made some very blanket statements about who might be involved in terrorist activity. These individuals tried to make the other officers attending the class believe that it was a fairly simple profile to follow. And in reality it's not.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So stereotyping essentially?

Deputy Chief BASH: Yes. I think that's a pretty good way to put it.

Professor SAM RASCOFF (New York University): That's not the sort of information that's going to make our cops and our federal officials smarter on terrorism.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Sam Rascoff is a law professor at New York University. He used to run intelligence analysis at the New York City Police Department.

Prof. RASCOFF: That's the sort of stuff that's going to paint the wrong kind of picture and frankly cause them to go looking in the wrong places for the wrong sorts of things.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And that was exactly why Chief Bash stopped that training session in Columbus.

There's a new report out today that tracks this problem in other places. It's from a group in Boston called Political Research Associates. And it looks at independent companies that provide counterterrorism training. It claims to have found stereotyping of Muslims in those cases too. And in the examples they looked at, they claim taxpayers paid for this training, possibly through grants from the Department of Homeland Security.

Mr. THOM CINCOTTA (Political Research Association): It has been a real challenge to link DHS grant money to these trainings.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Thom Cincotta, the author of the report.

Mr. CINCOTTA: We know that taxpayer money is facilitating attendance at these conferences. For instance, we will see municipalities cutting checks for, say, $1100 for, you know, one officer to attend a conference or seminar.

TEMPLE-RASTON: One of the reasons this low-quality training is a concern now is because going forward, local cops are going to be taking a bigger role in the fight against terrorism.

The Department of Justice has a new initiative that will take local tips and feed them into a broader database. The idea is to give law enforcement a more systematic way to follow up on new terrorism leads. So good local training -devoid of stereotypes - is vital to that.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

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