How Spy Agencies Plan to Solve Their Racism Problem

Prompted by Snowden leaks, the office of the director of national intelligence is attempting damage control by promising new programs meant to promote “diversity and tolerance.”

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 29: A member of CodePink protests as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (C) takes his seat prior to a hearing before the House (Select) Intelligence Committee October 29, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing on "Potential Changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA)." 
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Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
July 21, 2014, 12:42 p.m.

U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies are pledging “di­versity and tol­er­ance” re­forms after leaks by Ed­ward Snowden re­vealed a string of dis­crim­in­at­ory prac­tices and com­mu­nic­a­tions rife with ra­cial, eth­nic, and re­li­gious epi­thets.

The of­fice of the dir­ect­or of na­tion­al in­tel­li­gence says it will im­ple­ment an­nu­al train­ing on “multi-cul­tur­al un­der­stand­ing and sens­it­iv­ity,” an eval­u­ation of cur­rent di­versity train­ing, and the rees­tab­lish­ment of an ex­tern­al ad­vis­ory board on “di­versity and in­clu­sion,” ac­cord­ing to a DNI spokes­wo­man. The spokes­wo­man did not com­ment fur­ther on the spe­cif­ics of the pro­grams.

The in­tel­li­gence com­munity on Fri­day said it had com­pleted an in­tern­al re­view of its tol­er­ance policies. The re­view came at the be­hest of the White House fol­low­ing the Snowden leak.

The leaked ma­ter­i­als, pub­lished in The In­ter­cept, re­vealed the FBI and Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency had been spy­ing on the emails of five prom­in­ent Muslim-Amer­ic­ans who are not pub­licly known to be linked to any ter­ror­ist activ­ity. Also pub­lished was a 2005 FBI spread­sheet that lis­ted an uniden­ti­fied tar­get’s place­hold­er name as “Mo­hammed Ra­g­head.”

The In­ter­cept re­port promp­ted a heavy back­lash from anti-sur­veil­lance ad­voc­ates, who cited it as evid­ence of a sus­tained ra­cial and re­li­gious bi­as firmly en­trenched in the post-Septem­ber 11 na­tion­al se­cur­ity ap­par­at­us. Last week, some at­tendees of a White House din­ner cel­eb­rat­ing the Muslim hol­i­day of Ra­madan ex­pressed con­cern that the NSA was un­fairly tar­get­ing Muslims for sur­veil­lance.

In re­sponse, the ad­min­is­tra­tion did not com­ment dir­ectly on the vera­city of the leak, but said it had asked the of­fice of the dir­ect­or of na­tion­al in­tel­li­gence to con­duct an eval­u­ation of its policies to de­term­ine wheth­er suf­fi­cient safe­guards were in place to pre­vent ra­cial or re­li­gious bi­as.

Civil-liber­ties groups re­main largely un­im­pressed by the new sens­it­iv­ity meas­ures, say­ing they were un­likely to pre­vent the agen­cies from fu­ture re­li­gious-based tar­get­ing.

Naur­een Shah, le­gis­lat­ive coun­sel with the Amer­ic­an Civil Liber­ties Uni­on, said the new ini­ti­at­ives do not make clear “wheth­er law en­force­ment are still basing sur­veil­lance meth­ods on flawed as­sump­tions.” She poin­ted to the FBI’s 2012 pur­ging from its files of hun­dreds of coun­terter­ror­ism train­ing doc­u­ments after a re­view found sev­er­al in­ac­curacies — in­clud­ing the use of Muslim “ste­reo­types” or gen­er­al “poor taste” — in their de­pic­tion of Is­lam.

“All we know is the tip of the ice­berg,” Shah said. “The ad­min­is­tra­tion needs to do more ac­count­ing of its policies.”

Last week, the Sikh Co­ali­tion filed a Free­dom of In­form­a­tion Act re­quest to both the NSA and FBI ask­ing for all em­ploy­ee emails sent from Sept. 11, 2001, un­til present that con­tain the slurs “ra­g­head” or “tow­el­head.”

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