Undated file photos shows Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, left, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19. The FBI says the two brothers are the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing. (AP Photo/The Lowell Sun & Robin Young, File)

“We see with the new FBI terminology and the new intelligence terminology, they can’t talk about the enemy. They can’t talk about jihad. They can’t talk about Muslim. They can’t talk about Islam.”

— Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), speech on the House floor, April 26, 2013

Has the FBI been hamstrung in its investigation of the Boston Marathon bombers because of a “purge” of training materials deemed by the Obama administration to be offensive to various ethnic and religious groups?

That’s a claim that Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) keeps raising on the House floor and in media interviews — a point echoed by Sean Hannity on Fox News. (Hannity cites Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) as his source.)

Gohmert is a controversial figure who also recently made the unsubstantiated charge that the Obama administration is staffed with “many Muslim Brotherhood members that have influence.” That’s a bizarre assertion, mostly ignored. But his comments on FBI practices have gained wide circulation, so let’s explore the basis of that claim.


The Facts

The Obama administration’s review, led by a five-member panel of experts on Islam, was originally spurred by reporting by Wired.com, which posted a number of documents indicating stereotypes and broad generalizations in training of FBI recruits. The American Civil Liberties Union also posted many documents that it obtained through Freedom of Information requests.  

But Mike German, a former FBI agent who is now senior policy counsel at the ACLU, said the FBI’s criteria for culling objectionable documents have not been disclosed, so it is hard to know how many or which of the documents previously disclosed were removed.

Indeed, this is a difficult issue to assess because the actual pages that have been removed — some 876 pages out of 160,000, according to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III — have been disclosed privately only to lawmakers who have asked to see them. Predictably, lawmakers have had different responses.

“I am shocked at the material that has been removed, that they thought was offensive or problematic, and remain concerned,” Gohmert said last year. “We’ve got material being removed more because of political correctness than in the interest of truth and properly educated justice officials. We are blinding our enforcement officers from the ability to see who the enemy actually is.”

But Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) last year sent a blistering letter to Mueller after a review of the materials by the Senate Judiciary Committee staff. In particular, he complained that “the review of training materials did not extend to FBI intelligence analyses of Islam and American Muslims.” He cited a 2006 document that claimed that wearing traditional Muslim attire, growing facial hair and frequent attendance at a mosque were all signs of possible extremism.

 This particular document, titled “The Radicalization Process: From Conversion to Jihad,” was the first offending item listed by an Oct. 4, 2011, letter to Mueller by the ACLU and other human rights groups and an Oct. 19, 2011, letter sent to the White House by a coalition of Muslim groups. Yet as far as we can tell, this intelligence document has not been withdrawn by the FBI, despite having the word “jihad” in its title.

Meanwhile, in his various floor speeches and public comments, Gohmert has seized on a comparison between the number of times words such as “Hamas,” “al-Qaeda,” and “religious” were used in the 9/11 Commission report, compared to the FBI’s Counterterrorism Analytical Lexicon. Gohmert hauls around a big chart showing virtually none of those terms exist in the FBI document, strongly suggesting this shift is the doing of the Obama administration.

“In the very recent months, the FBI counterterrorism lexicon, this effort by our FBI that’s going on in the Justice Department… it’s going on in the White House, itself — they’re leading the charge — we don’t want to offend anyone,” Gohmert said in a floor speech on May 10, 2012.

But Gohmert is wrong to suggest the current administration had anything to do with the language. The lexicon was published by the FBI in early 2008 — a year before Obama became president. Indeed, the Bush administration emphasized the need to avoid such terms as “jihadist” or “Muslim” in its Guide for Counterterrorism Communication.

Kimberly Willingham, a spokeswoman for Gohmert, declined to respond to specific questions, including the contradiction about when the lexicon was published or the fact that FBI intelligence documents still refer to “jihad” and other terms that he claims have been banned.  “Unless the FBI will show you the purged training with purge notations that the congressman has seen, there is nothing further to discuss,” she said.

We have sought a response from the FBI and will update this column if we receive one.


The Pinocchio Test

We obviously cannot assess the accuracy of Gohmert’s comments about the purged documents, except to note that Durbin’s staff had reached the exact opposite impression. But while Gohmert has the right to jump to conclusions, he has no right to invent his own facts.

As always, the burden of proof rests with the speaker, and nothing Gohmert has said or shown demonstrates that FBI investigators have been hampered because training documents were scrubbed to remove material considered offensive to Muslim or ethnic groups.

Gohmert claims that the FBI’s “new intelligence terminology” means that they “can’t talk about jihad.” Based on the publicly available evidence, an intelligence document denounced by Muslim groups remains in use by the FBI; in fact, the Durbin letter says that such intelligence documents were never examined by the FBI as part of its review.

Moreover, Gohmert’s central document in his case against the Obama White House — the so-called lexicon — was produced by the Bush administration. That further undercuts his credibility. We are open to altering this ruling if more evidence is provided, but for now this looks as big a whopper as his claim that “members” of the Muslim Brotherhood have populated the administration.

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