How Spy Agencies Plan to Solve Their Racism Problem

Charles Dharapak/AP file photo

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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