Wed May 21, 2008 8:57pm EDT
By Randall Mikkelsen
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – FBI counterterrorism units are dangerously ill-equipped and barely 60 percent of the supervisory positions in the division that tracks al Qaeda were filled as of March, a bureau agent told Congress on Wednesday.
Bassem Youssef told a congressional hearing that the bureau has failed to recruit, retain and promote experienced personnel and experts in Arabic culture and language.
The shortfall has contributed to problems such as the improper use of FBI demands for personal and business records, said Youssef, who helped uncover the abuse.
Youssef, who was born in Egypt, has also sued the FBI alleging discrimination because of his race and ancestry.
“The FBI’s counterterrorism division is ill-equipped to handle the terrorism problems we’re facing,” said Youssef, a 20-year veteran who investigated bombings in 1993 at the World Trade Center and in 1996 at the Khobar Towers residence at a U.S. military base in Saudi Arabia.
Asked how much use the FBI had made of his own experience, he replied, “The bureau used my background and experience very extensively — up to September 11.”
Youssef, who heads the FBI counterterrorism division’s communications analysis unit, attributed the shift to a name mix-up with another agent, discrimination and cultural ignorance.
Members of the House of Representatives Judiciary subcommittee on crime and terrorism urged the bureau to revise an “up or out” policy that makes supervisors move from the field to Washington headquarters after five years, or take a demotion or retire.
“Apparently we’ve lost thousands of years of FBI experience,” said U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Texas Republican.
Lawmakers also called for protecting whistle-blowers after hearing from Youssef and former counterterrorism agent Michael German. Justice Department investigations supported allegations by both that they had been subject to retaliation after pointing out internal problems.
The FBI said in response that while it appreciates employee views, they “may be very limited in scope.”
It said it was working to hire more Arabic-speaking agents and others with needed cultural backgrounds, and that it had moved to create “career paths” so that agents with an expertise such as counterterrorism could stay with that for their whole career.
The FBI said that in March, in an internal e-mail cited by Youssef, it was seeking permanent supervisors in its International Terrorism Operations Section 1 (ITOS 1), which tracks al Qaeda.
The e-mail said: “This is due to the fact that ITOS 1 is currently at 62 percent of its funded staffing level. It is critical to the (counterterrorism) mission that these positions be filled as soon as possible.”
Last year the bureau assigned 12 staffers with no counterterrorism experience to work as international terrorism supervisors, Youssef said.
Many supervisors in such positions became discouraged, aware they were in over their heads, and warned other agents against taking similar posts, he said.
Youssef said that since September 11, his offers to conduct lie-detectors tests on Arabic speakers were rejected, despite his extensive training in administering the tests.
He attributed his stalled work progress to a name mix-up.
Youssef, who is Christian, said he was widely confused in the bureau with fellow agent Abel Hafiz, who refused to secretly record a fellow Muslim.
“It became comical when I found out that the FBI is supposed to be following terrorists with Middle Eastern names and we can’t get two names straight when they are right in the bureau,” Youssef said.
(Editing by Xavier Briand)