Two FBI whistleblowers and a U.S. senator attacked the agency yesterday for engaging in and covering up illegal procedures, as well as for discriminatory practices in its fight against terrorism.
“The FBI is one of the most powerful and least transparent organizations in the federal government,” said Senator Charles E. Grassley (R-IA) before the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, adding that the FBI’s culture is one that causes it “to confuse dissent with disloyalty.”
Grassley testified on behalf of two whistleblowers, former FBI agent Michael German, now with the American Civil Liberties Union, and FBI agent Bassem Youssef. The whistleblowers allege that FBI supervisors retaliated against them when each spoke out against illegal, incompetent, and discriminatory practices they witnessed while working in the Bureau.
German’s troubles began in 2002 when he was assigned to a counterterrorism case in Tampa Bay, Florida. The FBI had monitored a meeting between a supporter of a radical Islamist terrorist group and a leader of a white supremacist organization to establish ties between their two groups based on their shared hatred of Jews. Afterwards, German learned that part of the meeting had been illegally recorded and when he reported this information to his supervisor, his superior told him to “pretend it didn’t happen.”
“In fourteen years as an FBI agent I had never been asked to look the other way when I saw a violation of federal law,” he told lawmakers. “I felt I had no choice but to report this information to his superiors.”
One supervisor told German he’d never work undercover again. Further, German said, his efforts to report the allegation were either ignored or betrayed within the agency. E-mails went unanswered, even to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller, III. In violation of the FBI’s whistleblower protection policy, neither the Department of Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) nor the Bureau’s Office of Inspector General (IG) opened an investigation when he reported the incident to each in late 2002. Worse, both watchdogs leaked German’s complaints to the same FBI officials he was complaining about, he said.
Two years later, German resigned from the FBI after the managers he filed his complaint against received promotions. He then reported his case to Congress, where Grassley championed his cause. In 2006, the IG finally released a report of its investigation into German’s complaints, finally opened in 2004, confirming his version of events and that his managers did retaliate against him, although not to the extent that he alleged.
To this day the FBI has not compensated German for his troubles. The DOJ’s Office of Attorney Recruitment and Management, which determines corrective actions the FBI must take in whistleblower cases, told German he had to prove his managers retaliated against him by deposing witnesses and gathering witnesses at his own expense despite the IG’s findings that some retaliatory actions did occur.
“I was in no financial position to pursue a claim before such a dubious tribunal,” German testified.
Youssef also described a FBI culture willing to cut corners illegally and retaliate against whistleblowers. He further described a culture that discriminates against Arab Americans and mismanages its counterterrorism efforts against jihadists.
After 9-11 Youssef, a highly decorated agent who was the agency’s first legal attaché to Saudi Arabia, expressed concern to his superiors that agents being promoted to critical counterterrorism positions did not have the necessary knowledge base or linguistic skills. For his frankness, Youssef was denied a critical counterterrorism position and reassigned to his present assignment as the unit chief of the Counterterrorism Division’s Communications Analysis Unit (CAU), a position Grassley characterized as administrative in nature.
There, Youssef discovered that the unit was receiving phone records from phone companies without issuing national security letters as the law mandates. Despite regular attempts to call attention to the problem, the FBI did nothing until Congress asked the IG to investigate. During this time period, Grassley testified, “FBI officials wasted time and energy retaliating against Youssef rather than fixing the problems he brought to their attention.”
One official told the IG that he “threw [Youssef] under the bus.”
After the investigation, Youssef worked to ensure the FBI followed the law regarding national security letters and was lauded for his work.
Youssef also said the FBI discriminates against Arab Americans, undercutting the war on terror and harming national security.
Due to the agency’s unwillingness to recruit and hire qualified Arab Americans for counterterrorism positions, the agency’s International Terrorism Operations Section (ITOS) is at 62 percent of its funded staffing level, Youssef said.
Of those agents who do work in the section, many have no experience in counterterrorism and never wanted to work that detail. As a result, Youssef alleges, counterterrorism managers do not have the Arabic skills “capable of responding to real time potential threats or opportunities.” To shore up this knowledge gap, the FBI has become dependent on translators, which he says delays the Bureau’s response to time-critical situations .
After 9-11, Youssef met with Mueller and U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) to alert them to the specific problems he described. Again, evidence suggests FBI managers retaliated against Youssef for his outspokenness, according to a report by the DOJ’s OPR.
Unbeknowst to Youssef, ITOS had requested his services in its counterintelligence unit, but according to the OPR report, "[t]he ordered placement of Youssef in ITOS was never implemented and Youssef was never notified that it had been ordered." Youssef learned of this during the discovery phase of his federal lawsuit.
Grassley praised the two whistleblowers, saying they “face very difficult circumstances, sacrificing their family’s finances, their employability, and the attempts by powerful interests to smear their good names and reputations.”
The senator has co-sponsored legislation firming up whistleblower protections, which has passed the Senate. German, however, noted it lacked a provision in a House-passed companion bill that would extend whistleblower protection to all U.S. intelligence agencies.
In addition to hiring more Arab Americans, Youssef recommends making knowledge of Arabic language, culture, and history necessary for promotion in the counterterrorism program.