The top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee is raising questions about a controversial FBI program aimed at preventing students from turning into extremists.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.) on Thursday wrote a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch criticizing the delayed program, which civil rights advocates allege unfairly targeted Muslims.
Thompson questioned why the FBI, as a law enforcement agency, was involved in efforts to prevent extremism before it takes root, and “pursuing programs to expand its reach into America’s classrooms.”
Having teachers assist the federal program would “chill relationships with students,” warned Thompson, who is a former school teacher, and “undermine a supportive learning environment.”
“Put simply, turning teachers into intelligence gather[ers] and investigators has questionable value as a strategy for countering terrorism or violent extremism,” he wrote, and may cause students to turn “away from that one person, a teacher, who might be able to make a difference.”
The scrutiny from Capitol Hill comes after civil rights advocates and Muslim leaders raised alarm at the program, which originally appeared ready to be unveiled this week.
The “Don’t Be a Puppet” interactive program reportedly was intended to help teachers and students detect and prevent early signs of extremism, but came under fire this week when critics accused it of focusing largely on Muslims.
According to reports in The New York Times and The Washington Post, people who had used the program worried that it could lead to discrimination against followers of Islam and people of Arab descent.
According to the reports, the program indicated that someone with an Arabic name talking about going on “a mission” overseas would be considered suspicious, even though it could be an innocuous trip.
In his letter, Thompson did not make explicit reference to allegations that the “Don’t Be a Puppet” program is focused almost exclusively on Islamic extremism.
The program was reportedly originally scheduled to go online as soon as Monday, but has been “temporarily suspended,” Thompson noted in his letter.