Agents of Tolerance

FBI agents are taught about law enforcement at its worst.

There is a photograph in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum that captures the attention of almost every law enforcement officer passing by. It's from early 1933, shortly after the Nazi Party rose to power in Germany, and it shows a police officer walking alongside a member of the SS-the brutal, elite Nazi guard unit-flaunting a German shepherd.

"It just epitomizes what law enforcement should not be," says Keith Slotter, assistant director of the FBI's training and development division. "It's a very threatening, menacing picture. It's the antithesis of what we want our folks to be."

Since 2000, about 5,000 FBI agents have spent half a day at the Holocaust Museum in an unusual government training program. A partnership between the FBI, the museum and the Anti-Defamation League-a nonprofit organization whose mission is to combat anti-Semitism-the program teaches law officers how to avoid becoming agents of tyranny. "There's a higher moral standard than any employer or boss that everyone is accountable to," Slotter says. "There are basic rights and wrongs."

The museum, near the National Mall in Washington, tells the story of the Holocaust, when Nazis systematically murdered 6 million European Jews and millions more Gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, disabled people and anyone else who didn't fit German dictator Adolph Hitler's Aryan ideal. As part of their 21-week training course in Quantico, Va., FBI new agent trainees are guided on a special tour of the museum, focusing on the key role law enforcement played in perpetrating the atrocities. Veteran agents often complete the training later in their careers, too. Afterward, they gather in a classroom to discuss what they saw.

"One of the things you learn in the Holocaust tour is the whole event, it evolved," says Slotter. "It's not something that happened overnight . . . Hitler and the senior-level German government, they pushed slowly to see what people were willing to absorb. It reached the point where . . . there were military or others who were being given direct orders to kill-to shoot someone in the back of the head or push them in the ditch."

Slotter and FBI leaders want agents to think for themselves and avoid the slippery slope of oppression. In the era of the USA Patriot Act, including recent revelations that FBI agents improperly obtained personal information about American citizens, the lessons are pertinent. In a November 2005 speech to the Anti-Defamation League in New York, FBI Director Robert Mueller said as much.

"We understand that we will be judged not just on how we disrupt and deter terrorism, but also on how we protect the civil liberties which we cherish," Mueller said. "That is why the FBI puts a premium on thoroughly training our special agents about their responsibility to respect the rights and dignity of individuals . . . all new FBI special agents make a visit to the Holocaust Museum to see for themselves what happens when law enforcement becomes a tool of oppression."

The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and the new laws that followed them, are at the heart of this training.

"When you're attempting to stop the next terrorist attack," says David Friedman, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League's Washington office, "in the forefront of the thinking of all American law enforcement needs to be the notion that we can only do that by not compromising the protection of privacy and civil rights and due process."

Museum and the league's educators prod trainees and agents to use their investigative skills on the tour. The German shepherd photograph, for instance, is more than just a menacing image. In their classroom discussion, 20 to 50 agents at a time discuss why the Nazis needed the police in the streets with them.

"The [agents] will tell you: They have legitimacy, they are the ones trusted on the street," says Lynn Williams, the museum's director of community partnerships. "They're the only ones able to handle the canine in the middle."

Class discussions lead to questions: Why wouldn't the policeman quit his job? How could the police swear an allegiance to one man-Hitler-instead of to the greater good? The program began in 1999 when former District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Chief Charles Ramsey visited the museum. Deeply affected, Ramsey asked the museum to create a training program for his officers, and the FBI jumped on board a year later. Then came the Sept. 11 attacks. In 2003, the Justice Department awarded the Anti-Defamation League an additional $100,000 grant to fund the program for the FBI and Washington police. In 2004, officials created a special version of the program for FBI intelligence analysts.

Training law enforcement officers to disobey their own government, when circumstances warrant it, can be tricky.

"It took us two years to really find this conversation," Williams says. "You don't want to say, 'Don't follow orders based on a willy-nilly internal feeling.' You have to find what it is you hold on to."

After much grappling, Anti-Defamation League, museum and FBI officials, and the agents themselves settled on the FBI oath as their guide in ethical dilemmas: "I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God."

The oath is put to test in real-life situations, even in this country. Training participants discuss the not-too-distant collusion of law enforcement with the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s murder of civil rights workers in the South.

"They discuss what happened in the wake of 9/11 in which there were door-to-door interviews conducted with Muslim Americans and Muslims who had green cards here," says the league's Friedman, who leads some of the discussions. "They talk about these things very frankly. I think it would be extremely heartening to the American people to see." Officials at the FBI Academy are developing a spinoff of the Holocaust training program. FBI agents and trainees will soon be sent to mosques and into Muslim-American communities to learn about an ethnic minority in the hot seat today.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec