FBI chiefs downplay need for terror skills
WASHINGTON – The G-men who fashioned the FBI’s war on terrorism since Sept. 11, 2001, have a pointed message for agents looking to rise to the top: no Mideast or terrorism expertise required.
“I wish that I had it. It would be nice,” Executive Assistant Director Gary Bald said when asked recently about his grasp of Mideast culture and history as the FBI’s top official in the war on terror.
In sworn testimony that contrasts with their promises to the public, the FBI’s top counterterrorism managers say Mideast and terrorism expertise wasn’t important in choosing the agents they promoted after Sept. 11.
And they don’t believe such experience is necessary today even as terrorist acts occur across the globe.
“A bombing case is a bombing case,” said Dale Watson, the FBI’s terrorism chief in the critical two years after Sept. 11, 2001. “A crime scene in a bank robbery case is the same as a crime scene, you know, across the board.”
“You need leadership. You don’t need subject matter expertise,” Bald testified in an ongoing FBI employment case. “It is certainly not what I look for in selecting an official for a position in a counterterrorism position.”
In a development that has escaped public attention, FBI agent Bassem Youssef has questioned under oath most of the FBI’s top leaders, including Director Robert Mueller and his predecessor, Louis Freeh, in an effort to show he was passed over for top terrorism jobs despite his expertise. Testimony from his lawsuit was recently sent to Congress.
Those who have held the bureau’s top terrorism-fighting jobs since Sept. 11 often said in their testimony that they – and many they’ve promoted since – had no significant terrorism or Mideast experience. Some couldn’t even explain the difference between Sunnis and Shiites, the two primary groups of Muslims.
“Probably the strongest leader I know in counterterrorism has no counterterrorism in his background,” Bald insisted.
The hundreds of pages of testimony obtained by the Associated Press contrast with assurances Mueller has repeatedly given Congress that he was building a new FBI, from top to bottom, with experts able to stop terror attacks before they occurred, not solve them afterward.
“The FBI’s shift toward terrorism prevention necessitates the building of a national level expertise and body of knowledge,” Mueller told Congress a year after the suicide hijackings as lawmakers approved billions of new dollars for the war on terror.
Despite the testimony of its managers, the FBI said it has fundamentally reshaped itself to ensure the field agents on the ground who work the cases have the necessary skills, training and background for fighting terror. It noted it hired or redeployed more than 1,000 agents to counterterrorism and hired another 1,200 intelligence analysts and linguists.
“We fundamentally changed the criteria for hiring special agents and intelligence analysts to ensure that we get the critical skills, knowledge and experience we need to address today’s threats,” Assistant Director Cassandra Chandler told the AP.
“New agents receive personalized training from Muslim leaders. Street agents and managers in every field office have gotten to know the Middle Eastern and Muslim communities in their territories and regularly attend training sessions sponsored by community leaders,” she said.
Daniel Byman, a national security expert who worked on both Congress’ and the presidential investigations of terrorism and intelligence failures, reviewed the Youssef case for the court and concluded the spurned agent is one of the government’s most-skilled terrorism fighters and that the FBI overall remains weak in expertise on the Mideast, terrorism and intelligence liaison.
“Many of its officers – including those quite skilled in other aspects of the bureau’s work, lack the skills to work with foreign governments or even their U.S. counterparts,” Byman concluded.
“Knowing about counterterrorism would help a supervisor ensure a proper investigation and avoid missing important aspects of the case,” he said.
Watson, who oversaw the first two years of transformation, testified he could not recall a single meeting in the aftermath of the suicide hijackings in which FBI leaders discussed the type of skills or training needed for counterterrorism.
Youssef’s lawyer, Steve Kohn, pressed further.
“What skill sets would they need to better identify, penetrate and/or prevent a future Osama bin Laden-style terrorist attack?” Kohn asked.
Watson answered: “They would need to understand the attorney general guidelines for counterterrorism and counterintelligence investigation.”
“Anything else?” the lawyer inquired.
“No,” Watson answered.
John Pikus, who held a key supervisory job during the massive reallocation of agents from traditional crime-fighting to terrorism, testified the FBI didn’t create new screening standards to promote terrorism experts to its upper ranks.
“Strengthening up the criteria for selection,” Pikus answered when asked where the FBI was deficient in its terrorism hiring.
Pat D’Amuro, one of the FBI’s most-experienced senior managers in terrorism, testified that when he was brought to Washington to oversee the Sept. 11 investigation, eventually promoted to executive assistant director, he brought lots of agents with him from New York who had terrorism backgrounds.
But rather than conducting a systematic search for the bureau’s most-talented Mideast and terrorism agents worldwide, D’Amuro testified, he brought to Washington the agents he personally knew had worked successfully on al-Qaida and other terror cases.
He said that in later promotions Mideast and terrorism experience was helpful but not mandatory, noting the FBI also must deal with terrorism from domestic sources and the Irish Republican Army.
“It could be a benefit. When you look for managers, you’re looking for people that can lead people, manage people, knows how to conduct an investigation, knows how to collect certain intelligence or information, you know,” he testified.
When asked if he had any formal terrorism training that justified his appointment as the No. 3 FBI official, Bald said, “It would have been on-the-job in the counterterrorism division.” Bald entered the counterterrorism division in 2003 after leading the FBI’s Baltimore office during the Washington sniper case.
The assistant Bald brought in last year gave a similar account.
“It’s a tremendous learning experience, the seat that I’m sitting in. You learn every single day about this,” Deputy Assistant Director John Lewis testified.