The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Tuesday ordered the entire U.S. military to scour its training material to ensure it doesn’t contain anti-Islamic content, Danger Room has learned. The order came after the Pentagon suspended a course for senior officers that was found to contain derogatory material about Islam.
The extraordinary order by General Martin Dempsey, the highest-ranking military officer in the U.S. armed forces, was prompted by content in a course titled “Perspectives on Islam and Islamic Radicalism” that was presented as an elective at the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Virginia. The course instructed captains, commanders, lieutenant colonels and colonels from across all four armed services that “Islam had already declared war on the West,” said Lt. Gen. George Flynn, Dempsey’s deputy for training and education.
“It was inflammatory,” Flynn told Danger Room on Tuesday. “We said, ‘Wait a second, that’s really not what we’re talking about.’ That is not how we view this problem or the challenges we have in the world today.”
The strong response by the Pentagon brass illustrates growing sensitivity around the issue since Danger Room’s investigation of anti-Islam material in the FBI’s counterterrorism training last September. That story sparked strong condemnation of the training material from the U.S. Attorney General on down, and prompted the White House to order a review of U.S. counterterrorism training last October.
Despite that White House order, the “Perspectives” course, taught since 2004, not only evaded review, but had defenders in the Joint Forces Staff College that taught it.
Danger Room first learned about the course last month, and determined that one of its guest lecturers was Stephen Coughlin, who has taught FBI and U.S. Army audiences that Islamic law is a danger to U.S. national security. We sought comment from a representative for the Joint Forces Staff College, who defended the propriety of the course.
Feedback from students has been “mostly positive, usually around the 90% range,” Steven Williams, a spokesman for the college, e-mailed Danger Room on Mar. 14. “Students generally appreciate thought-provoking discussion and the freedom to consider critical perspectives.”
The Pentagon, though, told a very different story Tuesday. Flynn disclosed that since an unspecified “revision” of the course in the summer of 2011, multiple officers who attended the course had raised internal objections about its presentation of Islam and Muslims. He estimated that about 20 officers attend each eight-week elective course, which is offered four times a year.
Flynn said he heard about the objectionable material on Friday after a colonel enrolled in the course complained about the anti-Islam lessons. “We looked at it and we found the material to be objectionable and we started digging into it to see, how did the course get this way?” Flynn said.
The course was scheduled to hold its second weekly meeting of the semester on Wednesday. But class will not be in session. Flynn has appointed a two-star general to spend the next 30 days investigating how the course came to include anti-Islam material in apparent contravention of the White House directive.
Accordingly, Dempsey has issued a letter to the chiefs of all four military services and the leaders of the military’s regional commands to make extra-sure that their own educational and training materials “are consistent with our values,” said Brig. Gen. Richard Gross, Dempsey’s senior legal adviser.
“Possibly, we did not follow the procedures we should have followed in academically approving the course, but that’ll be formally determined when we complete the inquiry into this,” Flynn said.
Last month, Williams, at the Joint Forces Staff College, assured Danger Room that the course followed the White House-approved guidelines issued by the Department of Homeland Security (.pdf) to prevent anti-Islam material from being taught by the U.S. government. He described the class as including “the basic tenets of Islam; the context in which it was founded; the life of the Prophet Mohammed; Islam’s early development; the practice of Islam in various countries; the foundations and principles of terrorism; the roots of Islamic militancy, and a broad overview of various Islamic radical groups and their philosophies.”
But although the course material is unclassified, Williams would not disclose it to Danger Room. Flynn spoke more candidly about the material on Tuesday.
“We have an elective that did not meet the educational standards or the values of our JPME enterprise, so we’re going to suspend the course,” Flynn said Tuesday, using the acronym for joint professional military education. He added that his inquiry will determine whether “academically, did it go through the academic review process to make this truly an accredited course we should be teaching.”
Flynn’s inquiry will examine the chain of command to determine how the inappropriate material got into a course taught to senior military leaders. Flynn said there was as yet no indication that the anti-Islam instructions had disseminated beyond the Joint Forces Staff College, but the various inquiries will have to determine that.
“We’ll take whatever action is warranted,” Flynn said.