The FBI's highest ranking Arabic speaking agent opened his courtroom battle against his employer today in a Washington, D.C. federal court. Bassem Youssef is suing the FBI for job discrimination, saying he was denied a role in counterterror efforts after 9/11 despite his resume – and what he claims is a crippling shortage of qualified Arabic speakers and regional specialists.
Youssef, born in Cairo and raised in Egypt and California, was passed over for promotion even though he was one of the FBI's few Arabic speakers and had been lauded for infiltrating the radical Islamic group whose leader masterminded the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993. He filed suit against the FBI in 2003, alleging that the FBI retaliated against him after he lodged complaints against the counterterrorism unit and met with director Robert Mueller.
The FBI declined comment on Youssef's allegations of discrimination, citing the ongoing litigation. In depositions taken by the Whistleblower Center, which is representing Youssef, FBI officials have claimed that neither Arabic fluency nor regional expertise is essential to leading the FBI's counterterrorism efforts.
"You need leadership," said ex-counterterrorism official Gary Bald in a deposition. "You don't need subject-matter expertise."
In 2005, Jeff Stein, national security editor at Congressional Quarterly, asked FBI spokesman John Miller to comment on Bald's assertion. Miller said that "the executive in a counterterrorism operation in the post 9/11 world . . . does not need to memorize the collected statements of Osama Bin Laden, or be able to read Urdu, to be effective."
In a separate deposition, former FBI counterterror chief Dale Watson conceded that he did not "technically" know the difference between the two main branches of Islam.
The trial, which is expected to last two weeks, will include such witnesses as former FBI Director Louis Freeh and current director Robert Mueller, who will testify by deposition.
In testimony before Congress in 2008, Youssef said the FBI is unable to protect the United States from another major attack by al Qaeda or other Middle Eastern extremists.
He noted that at the time, in the FBI section dedicated to tracking international terrorists like al Qaeda, close to four out of every 10 supervisory positions were vacant.
As a result, the FBI recruited managers who had "no experience in counterterrorism and who did not even want to work in these positions," Youssef alleged.
The bureau's well-publicized troubles hiring and promoting talented foreign language speakers had also crippled its counterterrorism efforts, Youssef warned. FBI managers "rely exclusively on translation services" to understand communications from Middle Eastern terrorist operations, and FBI personnel "continue to make major mistakes" because they lack expertise in Arabic, he said.
As one consequence of these shortcomings, the bureau has "irresponsibl[y]" misidentified threats, Youssef said.
As another, Youssef said, it has come to depend too heavily on technological solutions, including aggressive electronic surveillance, which has "the potential of undermining American civil liberties."
The bureau said in January 2008 it had 46 agents and 285 language analysts who speak at least conversational Arabic.
"We have enough language qualified personnel to do our job, but that doesn't mean we don't want more, and we are continuing our recruiting efforts in this area," spokesman Richard Kolko said then.
Youssef remains at the agency, where he is currently the head of the Communications Analysis Unit.