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WASHINGTON – Terrorist attacks by al-Qaida sympathizers against troops living in the United States or their families remain a real and disconcerting threat, defense officials told Congress on Wednesday.

But lawmakers at that hearing criticized Pentagon officials for their continued refusal to identify “radical Islamist extremists” as the core threat to military personnel, saying their insistence on being politically correct might be jeopardizing America’s safety.

The language semantics have been an ongoing fight between defense officials and members of the congressional homeland security committees since the 2009 Fort Hood attacks, a shooting where 56 base personnel were killed and wounded by a Muslim Army psychiatrist.

Wednesday’s hearing was the fourth in a controversial series on the “homegrown terrorist threat” and Islamic extremism. In addition, the committees released a new report detailing 32 plots against military personnel and facilities in the United States since the Sept. 11 attacks, including Fort Hood and the 2009 Arkansas shooting of two Army recruiters.

Paul Stockton, assistant secretary of defense for homeland security, said the incidents illustrate the efforts by terrorist groups to strike within America’s borders and the need for vigilance and increased security efforts to protect military families.

“The threat we are discussing is serious and enduring,” he said. “The Department of Defense has become their target of choice.”

Stockton deflected several requests to name Islamic extremists as the primary threat to U.S. military personnel worldwide, instead stating that America is at war with al-Qaida and its ideological adherents, not any individual religion.

Lawmakers bristled at that. Rep. Daniel Lungren, R-Calif., said unless Pentagon officials understand the difference between radical Islamist views and true representations of the religion, they can’t effectively battle the threat. Rep. Chip Cravaack, R-Minn., accused the department of playing politics with the enemy.

The hearing was held on the 70th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attacks against military bases in Hawaii, an anniversary that House Homeland Security Chairman Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., called appropriate considering the threat still facing the country.

But members of the Japanese American Citizens League in a statement blasted the timing, comparing the committee’s marginalization of Muslims to the internment of Japanese Americans in the early days of World War II. Members of the American Civil Liberties Union also criticized the hearing’s premise as flawed and unfair.

Defense officials insisted they take all threats seriously, and that they have made significant strides since the Fort Hood attacks in preventing similar attacks.

Military officials have improved communications between base commanders and federal investigators looking into military threats. Troops now receive training on identifying potentially radicalized colleagues and instructions on how to report suspicious activities.

Still, lawmakers said they see many “soft targets” among military personnel here and overseas. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, questioned why troops still travel in uniform, making them an easy target for would-be attackers. Others questioned whether coordination with local law enforcement is enough to truly protect recruiting stations and other smaller military facilities.

Stockton acknowledged that more needs to be done. The department has made 43 changes to base policies and procedures in the last two years in response to the Fort Hood attacks and will fully implement 15 more by March.

shanel@stripes.osd.mil

Twitter: @LeoShane

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