The FBI's outreach efforts to the Council on American-Islamic Relations have been counterproductive, according to an expert at a Senate hearing on countering violent Islamism who called the group an extension of the extremist Muslim Brotherhood.
Although other witnesses told the Senate Homeland Security panel that communication with CAIR is beneficial, Zeyno Baran, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, said its relationship with the FBI leaves agents ill-prepared to work with the American Muslim community.
"For months now, FBI agents have been trained by CAIR to be sensitive to Muslims," she said. "This is completely self-defeating."
Baran said she believes CAIR was founded by the Muslim Brotherhood to influence U.S. officials, and works not as a faith group but as one with a political agenda of Islamism, a philosophy that treats Islam as a political ideology.
Furthermore, she said, the group was among those named as unindicted co-conspirators in a recent federal case that charged the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development with providing millions of dollars and logistical support to the militant group Hamas.
Baran questioned how CAIR is defining proper respect for Muslims when it advises the FBI.
"The agents are going to be misinformed and they will be overly sensitive and they will not ask certain questions," she said. Later in the hearing, she said CAIR "does not reflect the Muslim community as a faith community, but as a political group."
Senate Homeland ranking Republican Susan Collins of Maine said Baran's comments conflicted with the committee's understanding of the FBI's outreach activities.
"In previous hearings, witnesses have generally pointed to the FBI effort as the model of outreach to the Muslim community," she said.
When Collins asked who the FBI could work with, Baran suggested women's groups and those "not organized based on an Islamist political issue." But, she said, such groups have only recently emerged in Europe after "home-grown" terrorism attacks there. "We don't have that in America at this point," she said.
Support for Baran's position came from Steven Emerson, executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism, whom the committee considered as a potential witness, although he ultimately did not appear.
In a written statement he had prepared, Emerson called the federal government's relationship with CAIR "an almost comical situation," considering the Department of Justice's dealings with it in the Holy Land Foundation case.
Other radicalization experts who testified at the hearing took issue with Baran's characterization of CAIR.
Peter P. Mandaville, associate professor of government and politics at George Mason University, said he is not familiar with the specifics of the FBI program, but the picture Baran painted of CAIR did not sound right.
"I don't share the view that CAIR as an organization is best understood primarily as a front for the Muslim Brotherhood," he said. "I do believe there are individuals associated with that movement who hold those views, but I think it wrong to characterize the organization in its entirety" in relation to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Fathali M. Moghaddam, professor of psychology at Georgetown University agreed, with Mandaville and added that "The FBI agents that I know . . . I don't think they would have a problem cross-examining Muslims in any way."
In a phone interview, CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper defended his organization's record.
"CAIR is one of the most respected mainstream organizations in the Muslim American community," he said. "We build bridges between the Muslim community and the law enforcement community, public officials, elected officials."
Hooper called Baran's comments part of a "politically motivated smear campaign" designed to hurt relations with the Muslim community and that "I have a feeling that [Baran] wouldn't want the FBI talking to any Muslim group."
At a second panel in the hearing, Collins asked the person in charge of providing the situational awareness the FBI uses to do outreach, National Counterrorism Center Director Michael E. Leiter, for his opinion on the relationship with CAIR.
"I think that both outreach by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security . . . is critical," he responded. "Understanding that there are certain groups that might have individuals with whom the U.S. government might not want to associate does not and cannot stop this government from doing the outreach that it has to do."
Leiter pointed out that cutting back on outreach could lead to disenfranchisement of Muslims, something other witnesses had testified could actually stimulate radicalization. Federal agencies have to adapt a "full-spectrum" outreach strategy that engages with groups that disagree with U.S. policy, he said.
However, he said, the hard line is "if a group espouses violence, it's quite clear that the U.S. government should not be associated with it."
Rob Margetta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.