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The Investigation

Gold Georgia State capitol
Photo by Matt Siciliano-Salazar | The Signal

INTRODUCTION

A program designed to train American law enforcement alongside international partners across the globe sounds like something that would find a home within a government agency. Yet the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange (GILEE) finds its home within Georgia State.

Since its establishment by founding director Robert Friedmann, it has received high praise and accolades from educational, political and law enforcement leaders. It also has seen protests, petitions and resolutions knocking at its door. And despite students’ best attempts, records are heavily restricted and funding information is largely hidden.

GILEE’s influence extends beyond the campus, reaching far into the city, state and international levels. But what exactly connects Georgia State to GILEE?

The program’s office is located in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies building. Georgia State’s spokesperson, Andrea Jones, cited both the “internationally recognized program” and its founder’s prominence in the field of criminal justice as reasoning for how GILEE benefits Georgia State.

GILEE, which is funded through the Georgia State University Foundation entirely by private, mostly unnamed donors, received over $2 million of the Foundation’s total of $26 million in the past five years. No financial contributions were made by the university, according to Jones.

Friedmann, who declined an in-person interview but eventually responded via email, has come to recent campus attention for harboring what several activists and Student Government Association representatives believe is an anti-Muslim bias that they say reflects in the program. Jones declined to comment on Georgia State’s behalf regarding those concerns.

STUDENTS PROTEST, AND LAWMAKERS RESIST

Two months after students gathered in Unity Plaza in 2010 to protest GILEE and present a 900-signature petition against the program, Robert Friedmann, GILEE’s founding director and a retired professor of criminal justice, responded in an essay notably titled “Academic Boycotts: Terrorism by Other Means.”

“The boycotting students demanded to meet with the university president, and Dr. Mark Becker met with them recently and rejected their demand to shut GILEE down,” Friedmann wrote. “It is therefore most encouraging that in this round a university president provided a cogent demonstration of how to act against academic boycotts.”

Seven months later, the Progressive Student Alliance at Georgia State submitted an open records request, asking for the names of officers who participated in GILEE and what their training involved.

Then State Attorney General Sam Olens told WSB-TV that the information requested was sensitive and could aid or be leaked to terrorists. Olens further said that because GILEE program intel is sensitive, if exposed it could create a major — and even deadly — security threat.

OPEN RECORDS RESTRICTED

House Bill 261, which passed in 2011, was lawmakers’ effort to prevent that type of dangerous exposure.

“What this is, is a very narrowly defined bill to protect records, blueprints and plants from sabotage or terrorist attack or criminal mischief,” State Rep. Tom Taylor told WSB-TV regarding GILEE.

The law provided a special exemption for public officials to withhold records that could “compromise security against sabotage or criminal or terrorist acts.” This language was then ultimately included in a comprehensive rewrite of Georgia’s Open Meetings and Open Records Acts a year later.

Attorney General Olens, who had opposed the students’ request for information a year prior, was influential in this rewrite.

And while the law never mentions GILEE directly, it impacts which GILEE records are publicly accessible today.

Sommer Ingram Dean, staff attorney for the Student Press Law Center, provided advice for journalists or student activists interested in investigating GILEE, despite what she calls “a pretty broad exemption.”

“Ultimately, it’s going to be up to the recordkeeper to cite any applicable exemptions when you all request the records,” Dean said. “You shouldn’t self-censor the records you’re asking for.”

After The Signal requested documents in August, two inquiries were denied by the university: the 10 most recent delegations, including the police forces involved and the locations visited; and all Atlanta Police Department officers who have participated in the program.

In both instances, the university cited O.C.G.A. 50-18-72 (25)(A)(v) — the very language created in 2011 to protect GILEE.

According to its website, GILEE maintains a 501(c)(3) organization status through the Georgia State University Foundation, which protects their donors from being revealed in open records requests. 

Under 50-18-72 (29) of the Georgia Code, records by public post-secondary educational institutions containing donor information are restricted from public access, which means all donations to the foundation, including GILEE, are protected.

Because of Georgia’s laws, information containing GILEE donors, program participants and training details are all restricted.

INTERNATIONAL PARTNERS

GILEE works with officials in and from countries across the globe, per its website. 

Some SGA representatives have taken issue with some of these international partnerships, particularly Jazmin Mejia, university-wide president, and Hamza Rahman, Atlanta campus executive vice president, who co-authored the university-wide opinion resolution 89-UWSR-05 in spring.

“We are not against GILEE because of its involvement with just the state of Israel; we are against GILEE because GILEE works with human rights violators,” Rahman said.

According to evaluations by Human Rights Watch, an organization that reports and investigates violations across the globe, some GILEE partners don’t come out completely clean.

For example, Egypt is facing one of the worst human rights crises in decades and has prosecuted peaceful protestors and dissidents with counterterrorism laws and tactics (counterterrorism is a primary area of focus for GILEE).

Furthermore, Brazil, Argentina, France, China, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have all partnered with GILEE. They, too, have histories of human rights violations.

But the HRW doesn’t assign the U.S. a perfect record either: “The [U.S.] criminal justice system — from policing and prosecution through to punishment — is plagued with injustices like racial disparities [and] excessively harsh sentencing.” 

But do these partners train with and share these tactics with American police? If you ask Friedmann, he’d say no.

“GILEE does not condone, support or train anyone to violate human rights,” he said. 

WHY ISRAEL MATTERS

GILEE’s partnership with Israel is one that can’t be ignored, not only because of the opposition to GILEE by pro-Palestine students on campus, but also because of the program’s intense pride toward the nation.

The GILEE website echoes fears of anti-Semitism and invokes Israel in all of its three founding objectives.

This partnership is facilitated by the Israel Police (IP) and its Anti-Terrorist Unit providing knowledge to U.S. officials.

Friedmann’s support for Israel is often displayed in his writing. But for some, this is instead seen as a display of Islamophobia and political extremism, outlined by an April memorandum by SGA Senate resolution supporters.

An article titled “Radical Solution to Radical Extremism,” authored by Friedmann and published on the GILEE website, argues in favor of Israeli operations in Gaza, which he calls “a legitimate defensive action against a continuous onslaught of terror that has not been stopped by other means.”

“The ‘silent majority’ of Muslims and their various advocacy groups have not yet broken their silence about terrorism, jihad and their attitude to the West,” Friedmann wrote in the 2004 article. “[Groups not typically associated with conservative Islam] gladly jump on the bandwagon of bashing the same America they sought refuge or a better life in and now do their best to destroy.”

In a recent email correspondence, Friedmann said this article requires careful reading and attention to the sources his sentences are based on. He noted that both authors referenced in those sentences — Irshad Manji and Stephen Schwartz — are Muslim.

“The article is based on facts not fiction. Regrettably, terrorism is real and the article notes that there is a lack of universal condemnation of it,” Friedmann said. “The writing is therefore NOT problematic.”

SGA representatives Mejia and Rahman said that two events further associated their GILEE resolution with anti-Israel sentiments, despite their intentions.

The first was the publication of a letter to the editor in The Signal by student Zainab Khan, which persuaded readers to support both the SGA GILEE resolution and the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement, a staunchly anti-Israel coalition.

“Neither Jazmin nor I have ever advocated for BDS at Georgia State, nor do we have any plans on doing so,” Rahman said. “But the publishing of [Khan’s] letter made GILEE a BDS issue rather than a human rights issue.”

The second event they pointed to was when GSU Hillel, an organization that supports Jewish students on campus, publicly defended GILEE after Executive Director of Hillels of Georgia Russ Shulkes addressed the SGA Senate during the final university-wide assembly.

In his address, Shulkes said the program plays a broader role in the Atlanta Jewish community, which has been overwhelmingly proud of GILEE and its relationship with Israel. 

“The main reason we’ve supported GILEE historically is because a lot of Jews identify GILEE with the relationship they have with Israel,” Shulkes said.

But ideology may not be the only thing bringing GILEE and GSU Hillel together: Records show that both organizations share at least one major financial donor.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta has supported GILEE for over a decade, with $24,900 in 2008, $6,650 in 2011 and $116,950 in 2016.

Hillels of Georgia also received $624,759, $406,286 and $45,200 in those years, respectively.

Schulkes said he believes this to be a natural correlation.

“We probably have a lot of similar donors. A person that cares about Hillels of Georgia will care about Israel and a person that cares about Israel will donate to GILEE,” he explained. “I think the tie goes even deeper than that because of the nature of Atlanta.”

Students Feel Targeted

The day of the final university-wide meeting, both Mejia and her mother received calls from an unknown number inquiring about potential anti-Semitism.

“It has come to my attention that your daughter, Jazmin, will be participating in a student body debate and vote tonight on a resolution regarding Israel,” Joel Griffith, the caller, said in a voicemail.

Griffith is listed as an author at The Daily Signal, a conservative news outlet funded by The Heritage Foundation, which states on their homepage, ‘’Donald Trump and many Republican Congressmen promised they’d drain the swamp. And Heritage is here to help them do just that!”

But Mejia and her mother weren’t the only ones to receive a call that day; Rahman also received a call from Griffith — and he picked it up. Rahman described recieving a similar line of questioning about anti-Semitism.

“I’m really confused — freaked out. I just don’t know how this person got my mom’s phone number, and it made me question both her and my safety,” Mejia said.

Mejia said that by attending a free trip to Israel in December 2018, orcestrated by GSU Hillel and Russ Shulkes, she was required to fill out an emergency contact form with her and her mother’s information. Rahman also attended the trip, and he, too, filled out the form.

Lara Schewitz, the director of Jewish life at GSU Hillel, confirmed that there was an emergency contact form for the Israel trip, to which only she and Shulkes had access.

“Russ and I both respect the confidentiality of the names that were given to us so we made sure to keep it between us,” Schewitz said.

Mejia said she doesn’t know how or by whom the contact information was disseminated — if it even was — but she does know that, as a student, her and her mother’s information shouldn’t have been so easily obtainable for the journalist.

When contacted by The Signal, Griffith said he wouldn’t disclose how he obtained his sources. But he did note that that kind of information is much easier to obtain than some might think.

Griffith said he was pursuing that story but never published anything on it. He said he was troubled by the injustice, misinformation and hatred regarding Israel, especially at the college level.

“I think [students] are going to need to own up for these actions. They want to be the public face of this BDS movement? Well, they are going to get the publicity that they want,” Griffith said. “These are leaders. The leaders today on college campuses often are far more likely than others to become the leaders nationally and in their communities.”

But for Rahman, this was just the beginning.

“Let’s also be blunt in that we realize that this was an intimidation tactic. It was to scare us,” Rahman said. “And this wasn’t the only intimidation tactic used.”

After being added to a Facebook group chat, Mejia and Rahman received a message from a senior administrator within Hillels of Georgia, whom they declined to name specifically.

“I hope u guys are going OK. I spoke with Robbie [Friedmann] this morning… Just wanted to FYI you two. He told me he filed a police report, and more comment, against the ‘slander and libel’ written in your op ed,” the sender wrote.

The “op ed” mentioned was a letter to the editor, published in The Signal and written by Mejia and Rahman, with a message to students requesting their support for the resolution against GILEE.

“It is very possible you will have to defend what you two wrote about him,” the message continued. “If I can be any support for you emotionally, let me know.”

Friedmann denied he ever filed a police report or lawsuit against the students.

KNOWN SUPPORTERS

Because of the heavily protected records around GILEE’s program and its donors, speculation about who supports the program persists.

At GILEE’s 25th anniversary gala in 2017, attendees ranged from political leaders to corporate partners and law enforcement officials.

“Sandra and I are honored to have GILEE in our capital city,” then Governor of Georgia Nathan Deal said.

The GILEE program has been routinely supported by Georgia’s governmental bodies in the past. A Georgia House resolution recognizing Friedmann’s efforts and a Georgia Senate resolution commending the GILEE program were both passed in 2007.

This article was updated at 10:20 a.m. on Sept. 4, 2019 to correct the amount of funding GILEE receives from the Georgia State University Foundation.

The Signal