WASHINGTON — Breaking ranks, a career FBI agent told members of Congress on Wednesday that the bureau lacked the experience and sophistication to deal with Middle Eastern terrorists and prevent another catastrophic attack.
Agent Bassem Youssef said that counter-terrorism agents and managers at FBI headquarters often lack basic knowledge about Middle Eastern culture, language and terrorists' ideology. Compounding matters, he said, is the fact that the FBI has continued to name supervisors to anti-terrorism positions who have little or no experience outside traditional law enforcement.
The result, he said, is that agents are wasting resources chasing leads that more sophisticated observers would quickly dispense with. The time and energy expended on marginal cases has diverted resources from investigating more substantial threats, Youssef said.
"The FBI counter-terrorism division is ill-equipped to handle the terrorist threat we are facing," he told a House Judiciary Committee subcommittee considering legal protections for government whistle-blowers working at national security agencies such as the FBI.
"Regardless of what happens to me when I walk into the Hoover building [FBI headquarters] tomorrow, that is what I hope to convey to you," said Youssef, one of several who testified at the hearing.
The FBI took issue with the testimony. "While we appreciate any employee's views on the state and direction of the FBI, those assessments may be very limited in scope," said John Miller, the head of public affairs, in a prepared statement. He said the FBI has made "great and steady strides" to protect the country since the Sept. 11 attacks.
"It is cynical to write off the work of so many dedicated FBI employees or the accomplishments of the bureau by suggesting that these efforts are failing, especially when they are not," Miller said. He said the bureau continued to work hard to staff positions at FBI headquarters and to attract and hire more Arabic-speaking agents and those with diverse cultural backgrounds.
A decorated counter-terrorism agent in the 1990s, Youssef was passed over for promotions after the Sept. 11 attacks and filed a lawsuit in 2003 claiming the bureau discriminated against him based on his ancestry. The son of immigrant Christian Egyptians, he grew up in Los Angeles; he has long been the highest-ranking Arab American agent in the FBI and one of its few native Arabic speakers.
Youssef has been outspoken about the failure of the FBI to recruit Arabic-speaking agents and other bureau shortcomings. After the FBI denied him a transfer to a counter-terrorism unit, he was placed in an administrative job managing the receipt of information from telephone companies. He soon turned up problems with the way that office was operating, including its use of so-called national security letters, which has become a major embarrassment for the agency and drawn criticism from the Justice Department's inspector general.
The panel also heard from Michael German, a former agent whose 16-year career stalled after he blew the whistle a few years ago on an FBI supervisor in a domestic terrorism investigation. German had discovered that the FBI was illegally recording meetings between a neo-Nazi group and other extremists under surveillance. He brought the information to an FBI supervisor, who told him to pretend the illegal recording did not occur.
German described FBI management as frequently "dysfunctional" and failing to effectively communicate with agents on the ground. He now works for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Also testifying was Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who has frequently criticized the FBI for being insular and who has been a champion of government whistle-blowers.
"The FBI is one of the most powerful and least transparent organizations in the federal government," he said. "Underneath all of the good things the FBI does, unfortunately, there is a history of abuse, mismanagement and retaliation so strong that it has become part of its organizational culture."
Grassley said those who break the "code of silence" deserve more legal protection.