Pentagon List of Extremism Experts Includes Anti-Muslim and Conservative Christian Groups

The Pentagon’s Countering Extremism Working Group has circulated a list of prospective partners that includes individuals associated with anti-Muslim group MEMRI.

The Pentagon building in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., on Friday, April 9, 2021. President Biden plans to request $715 billion for his first Pentagon budget, signaling efforts to deter China and Russia by advancing hypersonic weapons and bolstering the U.S. Navy fleet with ballistic missile submarines and unmanned ships. Photographer: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images
The Pentagon building in Arlington, Va., on April 9, 2021. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A Pentagon working group established in the wake of the January 6 Capitol riot to root out domestic extremists has circulated a list of prospective partners that includes representatives of a conservative Christian group and an anti-Muslim extremism group, according to an internal Defense Department document obtained exclusively by The Intercept. In several cases, these potential partners were themselves involved in the misidentification of Muslims as terrorists.

On April 9, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced the establishment of the Countering Extremism Working Group, which would “receive information from both internal and external Subject Matter Experts,” who would serve as consultants. The document shows that those experts could include representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union, anti-hate groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, as well as the conservative First Liberty Institute and the anti-Muslim Middle East Media Research Institute.

The document, which was provided to The Intercept by a Pentagon source on condition of anonymity to avoid professional reprisal, is not dated, but the source said that it was disseminated late last month. The document states, “The Countering Extremism Working Group (CEWG) would like to partner with experts on counter extremism and counter terrorism to better understand the scope of the problem and inform the 90-day report for the Secretary of Defense. These experts may come from advocacy groups, academia, and other areas that contribute the to the fight against terrorism.”

The Middle East Media Research Institute has been described as “the Islamophobia network’s go-to place for selective translations of Islamist rhetoric abroad,” according to a report by the Center for American Progress. (One of the report’s authors, Lee Fang, is now a reporter at The Intercept.) MEMRI was founded in 1997 by Yigal Carmon, formerly a high-ranking intelligence officer for the Israeli military, who served as a counter-terrorism adviser to Israeli prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir. MEMRI came to prominence after the September 11 attacks by publishing English language translations from Arab media and disseminating them among major Western media outlets. But according to critics, MEMRI cherry-picked quotes to exaggerate the threat posed by Islamic radicalism. As the Center for American Progress report notes, Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik cited MEMRI over a dozen times in his manifesto.

The Pentagon document references one MEMRI staffer in particular, Anat Agron. Last year, the New York Times retracted claims it had made which were central to its award-winning podcast series, “Caliphate,” whose main character was a young Canadian Muslim who falsely claimed to have committed gruesome crimes as an Islamic State fighter in Syria. The podcast’s lead reporter Rukmini Callimachi explained that she had found out about the young man “through a researcher named Anat Agron.”

In an email received after this article was published, Agron disputed Rukmini Callimachi’s characterization of her involvement with the “Caliphate” podcast: “The NYT did shoddy to non-existent vetting of the Canadian jihadi in question. The title of my report which I gave to [Callimachi] had the word ‘alleged’ in it.” Agron disputed the characterization of MEMRI as anti-Muslim and stated that she has never advised the Pentagon.

Steven Emerson, perhaps best known as producer of “Jihad in America,” formerly served on MEMRI’s board of directors and falsely blamed the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing on Middle Eastern terrorists. (The bombing was in fact carried out by Timothy McVeigh, who held white supremacist views.) Shortly after the bombing took place, Emerson said on CBS that the attack was intended “to inflict as many casualties as possible,” which he identified as “a Middle Eastern trait.” This would not be the last time that Emerson jumped the gun and misidentified a terror perpetrator. After the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, Emerson claimed on Fox News that a Saudi national was considered a suspect before fleeing to Saudi Arabia. When Glenn Beck echoed similar claims, the Saudi man sued for slander and defamation, for which a settlement was later reached.

The document mentions Michael Berry, who serves as general counsel for First Liberty Institute, a Christian conservative legal organization. The group has litigated many high-profile cases of interest to the religious right, including the case of a Colorado cake store owner who refused to bake a wedding cake for for two gay men, citing religious opposition to gay marriage. First Liberty has ties to former President Donald Trump. Its former senior counsel, Ken Klukowski, served on Trump’s presidential transition team, and both its former general counsel, Matthew J. Kacsmaryk, and its deputy general counsel, Jeff Mateer, were nominated by Trump for federal judicial appointments. (Kacsmaryk was confirmed, but Mateer withdrew his nomination after comments surfaced in which he called transgender children “Satan’s plan” and advocated for judicial discrimination for reasons including sexual orientation.)

In a phone interview with The Intercept, Berry said he was not aware of his inclusion in the military working group’s list of experts. He also expressed concerns about respecting service members’ constitutional rights. “Eliminating extremism from the military is certainly a noble goal but it’s going to be important that we have a good definition of what extremism is such that we protect constitutional rights,” Berry said.

While it is unclear which of the individuals or groups mentioned in the Pentagon document will end up consulting, there are signs that some already have been doing so. Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League, thanked the Army War College for inviting him to speak on extremism in tweets posted yesterday.

The Pentagon, MEMRI, and the ADL did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Update: May 14, 2021

This article has been updated with a response from MEMRI researcher Anat Agron that was received after publication.
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