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June 19, 2005
AP: FBI Doesn't Require Terror Expertise For Counterterrorism

The AP reports this morning on testimony in a civil lawsuit against the FBI by one of its counterterrorism experts that indicates the agency still does not place the appropriate value on terror-related expertise when assigning agents to terror-related duties. Bassem Yousef has sued the FBI for bypassing him for promotions in favor of less-qualified agents, and the depositions promise to inspire some questioning of the FBI's top brass on Capitol Hill:

In sworn testimony that contrasts with their promises to the public, the FBI managers who crafted the post-Sept. 11 fight against terrorism say expertise about the Mideast or terrorism was not important in choosing the agents they promoted to top jobs. And they still do not 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 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."

The FBI's current terror-fighting chief, Executive Assistant Director Gary Bald, said his first terrorism training came "on the job" when he moved to headquarters to oversee anti-terrorism strategy two years ago.

Asked about his grasp of Middle Eastern culture and history, Bald responded: "I wish that I had it. It would be nice."

The bureau, as well as the CIA, came under harsh criticism from Congress and the 9/11 Commission for not having enough personnel with Arabic language skills and terror experience working on al-Qaeda and similar cases. That lack of depth was one of the problems the FBI was supposed to correct in the aftermath of 9/11. However, it appears even with the personnel who held that kind of experience, the bureau obstinately refused to put them in positions where their skills could best be put to use.

Bassem Yousef appears to be one of those cases. He received praise for his role in establishing links between the FBI and recalcitrant Saudi law-enforcement agencies after the Khobar Towers bombing. He speaks Arabic and is the leading expert in conducting polygraphs on Islamists in custody. Yet Yousef only received offers for lateral moves within the counterterrorism unit rather than leadership roles, while the head of the unit, Pat D'Amura, brought over agents without any experience to fill those roles after 9/11:

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 a systematic search for the bureau's most talented Middle Eastern and terrorism agents worldwide, D'Amuro testified he brought to Washington the agents he personally knew had worked successfully on al-Qaida and other terrorism cases.

He said that in later promotions, Middle East and terrorism experience was helpful but not mandatory, noting the FBI also must deal with terrorism from domestic sources and the
Irish Republican Army.

Granted, counterterrorism covers a lot of ground, including domestic groups such as Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front. So far, however, the priority has been on Islamofascists, especially since their goals have always been to kill people by the thousands or millions, if possible. It seems reasonable that at least some of the people running that program should have in-depth experience with Islam and the region. Instead, we get testimony such as this from a supposed FBI specialist in charge of the effort:

Watson, who oversaw the first two years of transformation, testified he could not recall a single meeting in the aftermath of Sept. 11 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. ...

When asked whether he, as the FBI's former counterterrorism chief, could describe the differences between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, Watson answered, "Not technically, no."

He also said that his assertion a few years ago that bin Laden had been killed a declaration that conflicted with CIA assessments and fresh video evidence was not based on fact. "It's my gut instinct," he answered.

The FBI needs to address this foolishness immediately. We should not be sidelining the agents who have the most talent to bring to our security while "specialists" who can't tell the difference between the Sunni and the Shi'a continue to get promoted. Alberto Gonzales needs to make it clear that this is unacceptable.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at June 19, 2005 11:11 AM

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