Spencer Ackerman – Wired.com October 5, 2011
FBI intelligence analysts weren’t the only ones teaching their colleagues that the U.S. is at war with the Islamic religion. Justice Department officials — and even teachers at the Army’s top intellectual center — are delivering similar messages.
Danger Room has acquired a 2010 PowerPoint presentation compiled by an intelligence analyst working for the U.S. Attorney in the Middle District of Pennsylvania. Reminiscent of FBI training materials exposed by Danger Room in September, the PowerPoint warns of a “Civilizational Jihad” stretching back from the dawn of Islam and waged today in the U.S. by “civilians, juries, lawyers, media, academia and charities” who threaten “our values.” The goal of that war: “Replacement of American Judeo-Christian and Western liberal social, political and religious foundations by Islam.”
When Danger Room questioned the Justice Department about the briefing, it issued a statement pledging to join the FBI in scrubbing its counterterrorism training for signs of material that equate average Muslims with terrorists.
“To ensure that Justice Department standards are upheld,” the statement reads, “the Department has today instructed all components and U.S. Attorney’s Offices to review all training materials and presentations provided by Justice Department personnel to ensure that any material presented is consistent with the Department’s standards, goals and instructions.”
But the Justice Department is hardly alone in hosting bigoted and counterproductive counterterrorism training. Even if federal prosecutors and FBI agents no longer go through such instruction, Danger Room has learned that anti-Islam training material has spread into the military. Some of the Islamophobic presenters hired by the FBI also lecture at premiere schools for military intelligence; at an online university favored by students seeking jobs in U.S. intelligence agencies and with affiliated contractors; and even at the Army’s intellectual center, Fort Leavenworth.
In other words, what the FBI once told Danger Room was an isolated incident — occurring one time in one lecture session — has spread throughout numerous government agencies over the years.
And in addition to being dubious as a matter of civil rights, experts say that the training places U.S. counterterrorism efforts at risk. “Boneheaded is a generous way to describe this training,” says counterterrorism analyst Jarret Brachman, author of Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice. “I’d lean more towards hateful, paranoid and completely counterproductive.”
The presentation in question is the work of John Marsh, a self-described “intelligence specialist” working for the U.S. Attorney’s office in the Middle District of Pennsylvania. Titled “21st Century Terrorism: History, Perspective, Development” and dated May 19, 2010, it was apparently delivered to a Defense Department hazardous-materials conference.
Marsh’s presentation, which claims to be “one analyst’s view” and not that of the U.S. government, paints a harsh view of Islam. “Internal Islamic Failures/Collapse,” it advises, “Did NOT Start on 9/11,” but instead date back “~1400 years” — that is, to the birth of Islam itself and the death of the Prophet Muhammad. (Other slides take a meandering tour through world history, and specifically the very pre-Islamic Roman Empire.) “2 Inescapable facts” about contemporary terrorists, Marsh presented, are “1. All Say they are Muslims. 2. All believe they are acting as followers of the true Islam.” Oddly, Marsh doesn’t mention the 2009 shooting spree at the U.S. Holocaust Museum or the 2010 attack on an Austin, Texas IRS office; both strikes were clearly acts of terror, but neither perpetrator was Muslim.
Still, Marsh provides “disclaimers” that Muslims “can separate politics [from] religion.” He acknowledges distinctions between Shiites and Sunnis, and between average “Muslims” and hardcore “Islamists.” Some slides list “positive contributions” from Muslims, particularly in the fields of medicine, art and architecture. “Many Muslims do desire peace,” Marsh allows.
But several of Marsh’s other slides blur those distinctions. They describe Islam as operating along a “broad Muslim belief spectrum,” spanning from average “Muslim” to “Jihadi supporters/terrorists.” (The “Two ‘Faces’ of Islam,” in Marsh’s telling.) The briefing contends, “No Major Muslim group has ever renounced the doctrines of jihad of the sword.” Underscoring his point, a picture of the burning Twin Towers is paired with two minarets. Over them reads a quote: “The West never remembers and the East never forgets.”
Those aren’t the only quotes Marsh uncritically presents. A famous line borrowed from Samuel Huntington’s influential book The Clash of Civilizations — also the title of one of Marsh’s briefing slides — reads, “Islam is CONVINCED of the superiority of its CULTURE; and OBSESSED with the inferiority of its POWER.” Marsh also presents a quote from the son of the founder of Hamas, a convert to Christianity: “What matters is not whether my father is a fanatic or not, he’s doing the will of a fanatic God. It doesn’t matter if he’s a terrorist or a traditional Muslim. At the end of the day a traditional Muslim is doing the will of a fanatic, fundamentalist, terrorist God.” And bookending his presentation is a quote from Princeton’s Bernard Lewis that seems to anticipate the objections to Marsh’s own briefing: “Self censorship and political correctness will destroy our ability to discuss issues critical to our survival.”
If that sounds reminiscent of William Gawthrop, the FBI intelligence analyst who compared Islam to the Death Star, it may not be an accident. One of Marsh’s slides cites a briefing of Gawthrop’s, titled “The Sources and Patterns of Terrorism in Islamic Law,” which presents straight-line arrows leading from “Islam” to “Hostile Islamic Groups,” “Hostile or Facilitating Islamic Nations” and ultimately an “Insurgency Environment.” The countries Gawthrop lists as afflicted by Islamic insurgencies include Iraq — but also the Netherlands, England, France and even the United States.
“Ironically, this briefing could have been delivered by Osama bin Laden himself,” says Brachman. “The fact that it’s getting airtime is a disaster for our government and the American Muslim community alike.”
Marsh refused to speak to Danger Room about his presentation. Both he and his boss, U.S. Attorney Peter J. Smith, referred Danger Room to the Justice Department for comment. The Justice Department promptly disavowed Marsh’s briefing — and pledged to join the FBI in reforming its counterterrorism curriculum.
“The presentation in question does not reflect the views of the Justice Department, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania or the FBI. The presentation represented ‘one analyst’s view,’ as stated in the slides, and the opinions expressed were only those of the presenter,” reads a statement prepared for Danger Room.
Nevertheless, the Department statement continues:
To ensure that Justice Department standards are upheld, the Department has today instructed all components and U.S. Attorney’s Offices to review all training materials and presentations provided by Justice Department personnel to ensure that any material presented is consistent with the Department’s standards, goals and instructions. This is particularly important with regard to training related to terrorism, countering violent extremism and other training that may relate to ongoing community outreach efforts.
Marsh, it turns out, does a fair amount of speaking on the perceived Islamic threat. In March 2011, he spoke to a Harrisburg community college’s homeland security conference on the subject of “Stealth Jihad: A Long-Term Threat to America?” (.pdf) Back in 2008, Marsh was invited to speak at the annual convention of the National Institute of Justice, the Justice Department’s R&D agency. The subject of his panel? (.pdf) “Hotbeds of Radicalization in Contemporary American Society.”
But the Justice Department is hardly the only government agency playing host to briefings that take a skeptical view of Islam. At least 10 times since 2007, Stephen Coughlin, a former consultant on Islamic law for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has lectured at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, the Army’s intellectual nerve center.
Coughlin has given presentations before conservative audiences that claimed Muslim nations have a “ten year plan” to make criticism of Islam illegal under international law. He has criticized ex-President George W. Bush’s assurances that the U.S. is not at war with Islam for having a “chilling effect” on intelligence analysis. Now a visiting fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Washington, Coughlin gave a January talk to the FBI’s D.C. field office allegedly claiming Islamic law was incompatible with the U.S. Constitution.
“I brief the FBI, brief the Department of Defense,” Coughlin told Danger Room during a short telephone conversation.
Danger Room has confirmed that Coughlin regularly lectures before a class at the Army’s Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth. The course is known as FA30, an “Information Operations” course, which instructs mid-career Army officers how to get the military’s message out.
When Danger Room initially called the course’s supervisor, an Army civilian named John Warner, to ask about Coughlin’s lectures, Warner abruptly ended the conversation, saying, “There’s really not a need for you guys to know this.”
Coughlin would not discuss the content of his briefings: “There’s a degree of confidentiality. If they want to talk, that’s their decision.” Before ending the conversation, he added, “I think you’re doing a hit and run and it’s pretty sleazy.”
Later, Army Col. Mike Dominique, who is in charge of training Army information operations officers at the Combined Arms Center, decided he did want to talk about Coughlin’s briefings. Dominique elaborates that his own “focus is the extremist groups” — the ones that the majors who take the FA30 course have to confront. And that is why Coughlin will continue to be invited to lecture at Leavenworth. “What Mr. Coughlin brings is a certain level of expertise on these extremist groups. He brings a perspective to the audience,” Dominique says.
But Coughlin also discussed Islam itself in the Leavenworth class. “Does he draw parallels between religion and the extremist groups? That can be seen. He uses that as an example,” Dominique says. “His only area of expertise is Islamic law. I can tell you this — and I’d like to really focus on this — my teaching point is not on the Islamic religion. That’s something we are very careful about. Who are the folks we have to deal with? We have IO [Information Operations] officers and American soldiers who are of the Muslim faith. We don’t focus on the religion aspect, but on the extremist aspect.”
A spokesman for the Combined Arms Center, Army Lt. Col. Steve Leonard, acknowledges that “in other venues, [Coughlin] may have created a negative message.” But Leonard says that even when Coughlin discusses Islam at Fort Leavenworth, he does not cross a line into anti-Islam sentiment.
“He helps the students develop a mental model of extremist groups and the process they use to influence moderate Muslims,” Leonard tells Danger Room. “He explains how extremists use the Quran and Sharia law to build a jihadist narrative that creates significant influence within a moderate population.”
In 2007, as Stephen Coughlin began lecturing on Islam at Fort Leavenworth, William Gawthrop began delivering a similar message at the premiere school for U.S. military intelligence. The class was catalogued as NFI 533, “Intelligence and Homeland Security.” It took place at the National Defense Intelligence College, the professional education institution run by the Defense Intelligence Agency.
According to a 2007 email Gawthrop sent to colleagues, obtained by Danger Room, Gawthrop saw his pedagogic activities as part of a self-initiated effort to build a “knowledge bank” of analysts “whose interests include Islamic Law and its impacts on Homeland Security.” The “informal” group would study Islamic Law’s influence on such issues as “immigration, birth rates and demographics,” “aggressive civil suits,” “Sharia Economics,” “Academia, Information Operations, and Parallel Structures.”
A spokeswoman for the DIA, Susan Strednansky, confirms to Danger Room that Gawthrop taught the 2007 course. The previous fall, he also taught a course called “Intelligence and National Security Policy Structure and Process.” Strednansky did not explain why Gawthrop’s lecturing ended.
That was not the only venue Gawthrop had to instruct U.S. intelligence analysts.
Gawthrop remains on the faculty of American Military University, an online higher-learning institution that caters primarily to military veterans and students interested in entering the security field. Gawthrop teaches classes on intelligence.
AMU is an 20-year old university — first a correspondence school, later exclusively online — that offers a variety of bachelor’s and master’s programs to its 97,000 students. About two-thirds of its students are active-duty troops or reservists. And it’s attractive to them because AMU accepts academic course credits that troops can earn in on-base education centers, so they don’t have to start their education from scratch when they finish their service. Most military and intelligence contractors require a college degree for their highest-paying jobs — and accordingly, many of AMU’s alumni are in “public safety or first-responder careers,” says AMU spokesman Brian Muys.
Gawthrop has taught at AMU since August 2007, to a “variety” of courses, each averaging about 14 students per class. “As a matter of university policy, his personal views expressed in any public forums — like those of all our other faculty — do not necessarily represent those of AMU itself,” says Muys. “Similarly, his appearance at public forums outside of our classroom environment does not otherwise imply any AMU endorsement of, or involvement in, such events.”
But American Military University recommended Gawthrop as a lecturer on Islam to the New York chapter of Infragard, a partnership organization between the FBI and the private sector, according to chapter president Joseph Concannon. On June 8, 2011, Gawthrop lectured to the group, instructing that al-Qaida was “irrelevant” compared to the threat of Islam itself. (Muys said he was unable to comment on the matter.)
The FBI explains that several of its employees have second jobs. It refused to comment on Gawthrop specifically. And as it has since the beginning of Danger Room’s expose, the FBI refused to make him available for an interview or explain why it continues to employ him.
The FBI’s parent agency, the Department of Justice, may not be taking any action to fire Gawthrop or Marsh. But in announcing its new vetting for anti-Islamophobic material in its training session, it emphasized that it views American Muslims as partners, rather than targets of the mass suspicion portrayed in the briefings.
“The Justice Department is fundamentally committed to upholding the civil rights of all Americans and is responsible for bringing to justice those who violate civil liberties,” the statement issued to Danger Room reads. “The Department’s commitment to protecting the rights of the Muslim and Arab-American communities has never been stronger, and its outreach to these communities continues daily around the country. Members of the Muslim community are indispensable partners in a shared effort to combat national security threats.”
The FBI and the Justice Department both are now reviewing their counterterrorism training for anti-Islam messages. Will the U.S. military follow suit?
Images: Justice Department intelligence analyst John Marsh’s 2010 briefing on “21st Century Terrorism.” Photo: Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas