At a House hearing on Muslim-American radicalization in prisons Wednesday, several Democrat members were anxious to focus on anything but the topic at hand, instead bringing up threats in prisons posed by "right-wing" radicals, gun possession, and gang members.
"The violent right-wing ideology of many of these gangs must be discussed," said ranking member Rep. Bennie Thompson when stating his case why the committee should be focusing on "extremists of all stripes."
He also tried to shift the spotlight to gun shows.
"Earlier this month, Adam Gadahan, an American-born spokesman for al Qaeda, released a video calling on Muslims to commit acts of violence against America by taking advantage of the gun show loophole," Thompson said.
Democrat Rep. Laura Richardson of California called holding such hearings as this one "discriminatory" for focusing on a particular religious group and tried to make the argument that gangs are radicalized in prison.
The comments by congressional members eventually prompted a response from California Rep. Dan Lungren.
""The political correctness in this room is astounding," said Lungren, the former attorney general of California.
Former Assistant United States Attorney of the Central District of California Kevin Smith, one of the witnesses, pointed out the difference between the threats posed by jihadi inmates versus those of gangs, explaining that a gang member is interested in enriching himself, whereas jihadis are only interested in criminal activity as a means to jihad.
Democrat Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas brought up the issue of Christian militants, to which hearing witness Patrick Dunleavy, retired deputy inspector general in the New York State Department of Correctional Services, responded, "I don't know that Christian militants have foreign country backing or foreign country financing."
Dunleavy later said that foreign governments have provided funds for New York state Islamic chaplains to travel to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj.
Committee Chairman Rep. Pete King of New York reminded the Democrats that their party held the committee reigns for four years and never held a committee hearing on prisons.
"This committee was set up to combat terrorism – it was set up after September 11th," King said. "There are already procedures in place that follow gangs when they leave prison. … If we find out that neo-Nazis are allied with a foreign power and they come into this country, we will investigate it. … We are going to focus on a target which threatens the security of this nation."
Thompson did acknowledge that Islam is the fastest growing religion in prisons, and that 80 percent of those who convert to a religion in prison convert to Islam. Thompson said the demographic is usually poor, black, upset about racism, and not particularly interested in Middle East politics. But he argued that the large demographic and relatively small amount of discovered radicals means it's not a huge threat, and that religious staff and what materials let into prisons are vetted.
However, Dunleavy said in his written testimony that jihadi and extremist literature still finds its way in through the mail and Internet. "Anything can be gotten in a prison including a PDA or a Smartphone with Internet access," Dunleavy said.
Michael Downing, the commanding officer of the Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau at the Los Angeles Police Department, said in his written testimony that the "radical literature" of American-born cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi has actually infiltrated the prison system.
Downing also reported they receive fifteen to twenty tips a month about prison radicalization in his seven county area. This leads to approximately three to four open investigations a year. He also referenced several other cases of prison Islamic radicalization: Kevin James, a former gang member who was able to recruit someone from a different gang and establish a jihad network that "crossed prison boundaries," although the group's plans to act against military and synagogues was uncovered in time; Michael Finton, who tried to attack a federal building and GOP Rep. Aaron Schock's offices in Illinois; and Jose Padilla, who was "accused of plotting to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb."'
King pointed out in his opening statement that a report by Sen. John Kerry stated, "Three dozen U.S. citizens who converted to Islam while in prison have traveled to Yemen, possibly for al Qaeda training."
Several of the witnesses agreed that there needs to be further assessment of the threat, and Dunleavy was blunt about what that first step meant.
"I think the first thing you have to do is you have to recognize that it is a viable threat," Dunleavy said.