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June 21, 2005
FBI Chief: No Experience Necessary For Leadership

As I reported here on Sunday, the FBI has ignored people with Middle East and counterterrorism experience while promoting others to leadership positions within the bureau for those units that handle the defense against Islamist terrorists. New testimony in the Bassem Youssef lawsuit shows that the attitude starts at the very top:

Director Robert Mueller says he doesn't believe his counterterrorism supervisors need to have a background in Arabic, the Middle East or international issues.

"Let me tell you that we want to develop that within the bureau, but making that an absolute requirement if you do not have it you would be precluded from advancing in counterterrorism no," Mueller testified recently in an employment lawsuit.

Mueller described his own expertise in Middle Eastern terrorism as having been "relatively limited" when he took over the FBI a week before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Mueller also testified he didn't give any guidance to his top managers to seek out the bureau's most experienced counterterrorism agents to work on the war on terror immediately after Sept. 11, saying he expected those managers to make good choices.

"It was in their hands as to how they did that," Mueller said in a wide-ranging deposition obtained by The Associated Press. Some supervisors were brought in without any terrorism training while some al-Qaida agents who were more knowledgeable about al-Qaida were brought from New York to work on the suicide hijackings investigation, officials said.

Most of the men Mueller appointed to run the war on terror testified that they didn't believe Middle East and terrorism experience had been important for choosing the agents they promoted, the AP reported Sunday.

Not only did they not make it an "absolute requirement", as Mueller put it, it almost appears to disqualify agents from promotion. The Director's approach to leadership sounds like that taken by most companies about salesmen -- that the product doesn't matter, only the talent for selling. Mueller's attitude towards leadership has cascaded downward through the organization that he created, post-9/11, to tackle counterterrorism. Here's exactly what Mueller had to say in that regard:

Mueller described his top anti-terror managers' knowledge of dealing with foreign governments, Middle East history, international terrorism and al-Qaida this way: "Helpful, not essential."

"Leadership ability is transferable," he said. "And often you can pick up the subject matter if you've got leadership skills."

Even the 9/11 Commission knew better than this. They pointed out that a knowledge deficit at the leadership level on Middle Eastern affairs, especially Arabic language and experience with al-Qaeda, could cause serious problems in directing resources properly and determining which leads needed immediate attention. Instead of heeding this rather obvious bit of advice, the FBI put people in charge of counterterrorism who can't tell the difference -- even after three years of on-the-job training -- between a Sunni and a Shi'ite Muslim. The man now in charge, Gary Bald, admits that he still doesn't have a grasp on Middle Eastern culture and history, although he allows that it would be "nice" if he did.

If the FBI had no agents with any experience in this work, these failures could be explicable. However, when agents like Youssef get passed over for promotion in favor of people who clearly know too little about our main enemy in the war on terror, it calls the FBI's leadership into question. Members of Congress from both parties want some answers on why the FBI has not cleaned up its act, and based on this lawsuit, they have a point. The line of defense that the FBI represents is far too critical for the old-boy network to operate as usual.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at June 21, 2005 6:17 AM

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