The FBI is "ill-equipped" to handle the current terror threat, an agent embroiled in a whistleblower case with the bureau, claimed to a congressional committee today.
"My greatest goal today is to be able to get the message across to Congress, to this distinguished committee, that the FBI's counterterrorism division is ill-equipped to handle the terrorist threat that we're facing," Bassem Youssef told the House Judiciary subcommittee.
"We have agents who are highly dedicated within the counterterrorism division who want to do a very good job," he continued. "But they're unable to because they're not given the tools or the assets that they need to actually understand the enemy."
Youssef says the FBI counterterrorism program can't protect the United States from another catastrophic direct attack from Middle Eastern terrorists because the bureau lacks the necessary resources, especially experienced counterterrorism experts who understand native languages and cultures throughout the Middle East and Central Asia.
Youssef said the FBI is "inexcusably understaffed" in its International Terrorism Operations Section (ITOS). According to Youssef's testimony, the FBI's staffing level, at its supervisory level, is only 62 percent of its mandated funded level.
FBI officials say most key counterterrorism work is done out in the field, away from headquarters.
Youssef read e-mails sent to employees in the FBI Counterterrorism Division, which said, "Executive management is canvassing the division for volunteers to be permanently reassigned to ITOS 1. This is due to the fact that ITOS 1 is currently at 62 percent of its funded staffing level. It is critical to the CT [counterterrorism] mission that these positions be filled as soon as possible."
In a statement issued after the hearing, FBI assistant director John Miller said, "Over the nearly seven years since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the FBI has made great and steady strides to build a domestically focused national security organization with the added value and responsibility of law enforcement powers.
"In that time, the FBI's priorities were dramatically shifted to make prevention of another terrorist attack our top priority," Miller's statement continued. "Since 9/11, but particularly over the past year, the FBI has been addressing staffing concerns, career path issues, and how we can better leverage a strategic, intelligence-based view, across all of our investigative programs."
Youssef, who is represented by the National Whistleblower Center, has sued the FBI, claiming he was discriminated against for not being posted on counterterrorism assignments since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
The suit alleges Youssef has been passed over for promotions inside the counterterrorism division after voicing concern about less qualified agents being promoted.
Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., asked Youssef, who is a certified Arabic-speaking FBI polygraph examiner, how he was being used by the bureau.
"Have your skills been utilized by the FBI after the events of Sept. 11, 2001?" Johnson asked.
"Not once, sir," Youssef responded.
Youssef, the highest ranking Arab-American in the FBI since March 1988, speaks Arabic and has worked on many high profile investigations, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and served as the FBI's legal attaché in Saudi Arabia after the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing.
According to an internal Justice Department review of the case by the Office of Professional Responsibility, in 2002, Youssef was informed he would be transferred to the FBI's Counterintelligence Division Budget Unit, but was then posted to the FBI's Document Exploitation Unit, which reviewed and organized documents collected from Afghanistan and other terrorist locations.
His lawsuit also disclosed he had applied for a position at the FBI's Strategic Information Operations Center (SIOC), but other candidates were selected.
In a March 2008 opinion in the litigation, Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly wrote, "[FBI] memorandum reflects the FBI's proffered legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for selecting a candidate other than Youssef for the SIOC position."
Youssef is currently the chief of the FBI's Communications Analysis Unit, which analyses telephone records and issues requests between the FBI and the phone companies.
Youssef testified before the committee today that he tried to raise concerns about the use of national security letters (NSLs) in 2006, but his warnings were not heeded.
"I began to realize that there were issues with the use of national security letters and that I had actually gone to my superiors, explaining to them that there is an issue here that we need to deal with: 'This is going to kill us,'" he said.
Youssef also noted concerns to the FBI's Office of General Counsel about the use of exigent letters sent to the phone companies to request phone records in national security investigations, but said the claims were ignored.
Youssef told the committee, "there's an e-mail ... giving my unit guidance, to continue to use the exigent letters and to start using them pronto."
The Justice Department inspector general has found, in audits over the last two years, that the FBI requested more than 199,000 NSLs with no judicial review between 2003 and 2006, and issued 700 exigent letters to obtain information from phone companies.
The Justice Department inspector general is investigating whether crimes were committed by personnel in the Communications Analysis Unit in their use of exigent letters to obtain information for counterterrorism cases.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, testified before the committee today that the FBI has a deeply ingrained culture of retaliation, and is one of the few agencies not to have strong whistleblower protection laws.
Some agents have said they "threw [Youssef] under the bus," in the inspector general inquiry on the exigent letters, Grassley said.
"These comments confirm that the anti-whistleblower culture at the FBI is as strong as ever," the senator said. "Essentially, these FBI personnel stated openly that they intend to use inspector general review as a vehicle to retaliate against Youssef."
Youssef's suit filed against the FBI is set for remediation in August 2008.
In her March opinion, Kollar-Kotelly noted of the suit, "The Court agrees with the FBI that these are not legal 'claims.' Addressing them in the order presented above, the first claim does not allege an adverse employment action -- it alleges the status quo."