A slow expansion of policies begun under George W. Bush
President Barack Obama got Osama Bin Laden -- but has he kept his 2008 promise to "address the problem in our prisons, where the most disaffected and disconnected Americans are being explicitly targeted for conversion by al-Qaida and its ideological allies"?
We spoke to a range of experts, and we found that most agreed that the Obama administration has made efforts, but has so far failed to make a quantum leap.
Generally speaking, the experts said, Obama has continued efforts put into place under President George W. Bush, such as restrictions at the Communication Management Units, or CMUs, at the federal penitentiaries at Terre Haute, Ind., and Marion, Ill.
"The CMUs are as close to secret prisons as any offshore facility, including Guantanamo,” said Mark Hamm, an Indiana State University criminologist and author of a forthcoming book, The Spectacular Few: Prisoner Radicalization and the Evolving Terrorist Threat (New York University Press, 2013). "Inmates are generally denied access to the outside world. There are strict prohibitions on mail, phone calls, and visitation. In this way, authorities control possible communications with al-Qaida recruiters and, more importantly, they prevent CMU prisoners from radicalizing other inmates in general population.”
In a June 15, 2011, hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee on the radicalization of Muslim Americans in U.S. prisons, the committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, said his staff had been informed by officials of the federal Bureau of Prisons and state prison officials "that they routinely require religious staff, including imams, rabbis and priests, to undergo rigorous vetting, including verification of religious credentials, background checks and personal interviews. They told us that any religious book and recorded message used must be screened and that guards monitor the services. When we asked about radicalization by outside influences, they told us that prisoners do not have Internet access and all non-legal mail is opened, read and sometimes censored.”
The committee's chairman, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., acknowledged that the Obama administration "recognizes prison radicalization is a serious threat and that prisons are a fertile ground for recruitment.” King praised Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano for saying that state and local officials are "collaborating to develop a mitigation strategy for terrorist use of prisons for radicalization and recruitment."
In congressional testimony given on July 25, 2012, Napolitano said the administration was finalizing awareness training for "countering violent extremism” for correctional, probation and parole-officers.
However, experts said that it was too soon to say that the administration had taken anti-recruitment efforts to the next level.
For instance, Hamm said the Obama administration has so far failed to implement a key piece of the equation in the CMUs.
"What is missing are programs to assist with the de-radicalization of CMU prisoners, most of whom are foreign-born Arab Muslims,” Hamm said. "Deradicalization programs are common in Europe, the Middle East and parts of the Asian Pacific. On that score, steps have not been taken.”
Another problem: "We still don't have meaningful infrastructure in place to monitor Arabic-language communications of prisoners,” said Joel Mowbray, a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "I don't think it's gotten worse under Obama, but it doesn't seem like they have built up the necessary infrastructure to deal with the issue.”
Obama's promise is "not something the administration has been ignoring, but they have been slow to move on it,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, the vice president of research at the conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "It could be one of those things that sounds good on the campaign trail, but when you get down to it and see what the previous administration has done (the next policy steps) might not be obvious.”
We rate this promise a Compromise.
Janet Napolitano, congressional testimony, July 25, 2012
Interview with Joel Mowbray, a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Nov. 20, 2012
Interview with Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Nov. 20, 2012
Email interview with J. Michael Waller, a professor of international communication at the Institute of World Politics, Nov. 20, 2012
Email interview with Mark Hamm, Indiana State University criminologist and author of a forthcoming book, The Spectacular Few: Prisoner Radicalization and the Evolving Terrorist Threat, Nov. 20, 2012
No indication yet of initiatives targeting terrorist recruitment in U.S. prisons
During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to "address the problem in our prisons, where the most disaffected and disconnected Americans are being explicitly targeted for conversion by al-Qaida and its ideological allies."
Three specialists on terrorist recruitment -- Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, the vice president of research at the conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the author of two recent studies on homegrown terrorism and radicalization; Andrew McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor specializing in terrorism and a contributing editor with National Review Online; and J. Michael Waller, professor of international communication with the Institute of World Politics -- told PolitiFact that they were unaware of any specific initiatives so far by the Obama administration.
In addition, searches using Google, Whitehouse.gov and Nexis failed to turn up any evidence that the direct subject of this promise -- the fear that al-Qaida is recruiting within the general populations of American prisons -- has advanced since Obama took office.
The president and members of his administration have often addressed the issue of al-Qaida recruitment, but they have typically focused on overseas recruitment. For instance, in his Jan. 7, 2010, remarks after the failed Christmas 2009 bombing of an airliner in Detroit, the president said:
"We know that the vast majority of Muslims reject al-Qaida. But it is clear that al-Qaida increasingly seeks to recruit individuals without known terrorist affiliations not just in the Middle East, but in Africa and other places, to do their bidding. That's why I've directed my national security team to develop a strategy that addresses the unique challenges posed by lone recruits. And that's why we must communicate clearly to Muslims around the world that al-Qaida offers nothing except a bankrupt vision of misery and death –- including the murder of fellow Muslims –- while the United States stands with those who seek justice and progress."
Meanwhile, the president and his team have repeatedly cited one particular prison -- the Guantanamo Bay detention facility -- as an effective symbol for al-Qaida recruiters, and they have used that claim as the rationale for their efforts to close the facility. But the remarks have not specifically referred to the impact of Guantanamo on prison populations in the United States.
If we hear of any new initiatives on this subject, we'll change our rating. But for now, we'll rate this promise Stalled.
Barack Obama, remarks on strengthening intelligence and aviation security, Jan. 7, 2010
E-mail interview with Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Jan. 13, 2010
E-mail interview with Andrew McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor specializing in terrorism and a contributing editor with National Review Online, Jan. 13, 2010
E-mail interview with J. Michael Waller, professor of international communication with the Institute of World Politics, Jan. 13, 2010
Internet and Nexis searches that produced no results.