Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) heads the… (Mark Wilson, Getty Images )
Reporting from Washington — A congressional hearing on whether inmates are being radicalized in U.S. prisons erupted in bipartisan anger Wednesday, with Democrats charging Muslims were being unfairly targeted and the Republican committee chairman vowing to continue investigating what he views as threats to national security.
Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) has been the focus of months of criticism since the first hearing of his House Homeland Security Committee in March on the radicalization of U.S. Muslims.
Wednesday's second hearing centered on whether inmates in U.S. prisons are being radicalized by Muslim chaplains and others for future terrorism attacks.
Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Long Beach) said Latino, Asian and African American gang members often leave prison more violent — an argument she and her Democratic colleagues used to say the hearings unfairly singled out Muslims.
"These groups kill people, individuals in these groups kill people," Richardson said, citing letters from 14 gang-affiliated prisoners who threatened more violence once they were released.
She turned to King and called the hearings "racist and discriminatory." She said blaming "one particular group on the basis of race or religion is flawed, and should not be done in the House of Representatives."
King fired back that the committee, which was formed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, had never looked into anything concerning prisons, including in the years when Democrats were the majority party in the House.
He refused to broaden his scope, saying "we are not going to spread ourselves out, investigate everything, which means investigate nothing." Rather, he said, "we're going to focus on a target which threatens the security of this nation."
King said "dozens" of Muslims were radicalized behind bars, including James Cromitie, who was convicted in October of planning to attack Jewish targets in New York and shoot down U.S. military planes.
King also mentioned Jose Padilla, the so-called dirty bomber from Chicago who converted to Islam in a Florida jail, and Kevin James, who formed a radical group at Folsom Prison in California and pledged to wage war against the United States.
"The threat is real," King said, "and it is rising."
Michael Downing, commanding officer of the Los Angeles Police Department's counter-terrorism bureau, testified at the hearing that in the seven-county region of Southern California, police receive 15 to 20 reports a month of prisoners being radicalized by Muslim chaplains or others.
"They do develop into open cases, which is of great concern," he said. "We've educated the prison guards and the institutions on what to look for and how to report it."
But under questioning from Democrats, Downing conceded that there are 60,000 gang members in Los Angeles County from 400 different gangs, many of whom are violent and territorial.
Pressed by Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Gold River), Downing said he didn't know of any gang members who had an ideology dedicated to the destruction of the United States.