FBI Failed to Hire, Promote Terror Experts

Despite claims of transformation into a counterterrorism agecy, the FBI has done little to hire and promote people with expertise in terrorism or the Middle East. That does not look to change any time soon.

FBI Failed to Hire, Promote Terror Experts (AP)

The FBI vowed to build national expertise for fighting terrorists after the Sept. 11 attacks, but the supervisors who crafted that war plan now say Middle East and terrorism experience haven’t been important for choosing their agents. “You need leadership. You don’t need subject matter expertise,” Executive Assistant Director Gary Bald recently testified in a little noticed employment case now catching the eye of Congress. “It is certainly not what I look for in selecting an official for a position in a counterterrorism position.”

The lawsuit, brought against the FBI by one of its most accomplished pre-Sept. 11 terror-fighting agents, provides sharp contrasts between the bureau’s public promises and the reality of how it has chosen the agents who run its war on terrorism.

In hundreds of pages of sworn testimony obtained by The Associated Press, senior FBI managers argued repeatedly that Middle East and anti-terrorism experience aren’t required for promotion and that they see little difference between solving a traditional crime and a terror attack. “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.”

Watson couldn’t describe the difference between Shiites and Sunnis, the two major groups of Muslims. “Not technically, no,” Watson answered when asked the question.


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 terrorist 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 to fight terrorism.

Despite the testimony of how its managers were chosen, the FBI said it has fundamentally reshaped itself at the field level to ensure the agents who work the cases have the necessary skills, training and background for fighting terrorism. It hired or redeployed more than 1,000 agents to counterterrorism and hired an additional 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 FBI Director Cassandra Chandler told the AP.

Daniel Byman, a national security expert who worked on both congressional and presidential investigations of terrorism and intelligence failures, reviewed the Youssef case for the court. Byman concluded the FBI overall remains woefully weak in expertise on the Middle East, 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.

None of this is particularly surprising; indeed, it was entirely predictable.

Watson is, in a sense, correct: managers do not necessarily need substantive expertise in what their subordinates do on a day-to-day basis. The commanding general of CENTCOM does not need to know how to fly fighter planes, analyze signals intelligence, or replace the power train of an M1 Abrams tank. He does, however, need to know something about warfighting.

The fundamental problem is that the FBI continues to be an investigatory agency (hence the “I” ) that focuses on building a case against criminals. Its agents, mostly attorneys and accountants by training, are the stars of the Bureau. Counterintelligence analysts, linguists, and others with specialized expertise are mere “support staff.”

While it needs substantial modernization, the FBI is pretty good at what it does. It makes little sense to transform a superb law enforcement unit into a mediocre counterintelligence unit. Instead, the mission and appropriately trained personnel need to be transferred to the Department of Homeland Security into a specialized unit where preventing terrorism is Job One.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, Terrorism, Uncategorized, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Craig Busse says:

    None of this is particularly surprising; indeed, it was entirely predictable.

    Yes it was, but since you didn’t mention why allow me.

    The senior managers themselves lacked terrorism expertise and did not want to see their own skill set relatively devalued by making counterterrorism a full career path specialty. While you generously concede to them that “managers do not necessarily need substantive expertise in what their subordinates do on a day-to-day basis” that doesn’t really mean that such expertise would not be valuable to have among at least some upper level managers.

    All that notwithstanding, you are right again in your conclusion. Counterterrorism merits an agency where is it clearly “Job One”.

  2. Robert McNicoll says:

    F. B. I. has always been a “whitebreads mutual admiration society” just like CIA which are all Ivy League Wasps with “no foreign language & cultural skills”. (I know from experience)

    Horrors, if “mid-east language & cultural skills” are recognized and Field Merit….

    The Bloddy Wogs Would Run F. B.I. And C. I. A. !

  3. anjin-san says:

    Bush has failed us again…. wow… what a suprise!

  4. davod says:

    Bush has failed again. Golly. I thought you would be cheering that the neocons hadn’t got their dirty little hands on the Whitebread FBI. Another success for the Unions and status quo.

  5. charlie32 says:

    First, note that there is a subtle but important difference between being a “counterintelligence” vs “counter-terrorism” agency. The FBI has been in the CI business for years, although the criminal side guys look down on CI types. It was once said the quickest route to the CI side of things was to screw up on the Fraud squad. But they have also got some major successes in CI, and some of the best CI types came from the FBI.
    CT is different. For one thing, in that area people KILL people. CI has not dealt with that stuff much in over 50 years, since the Soviets cut back on “wet work”.
    CI is about defeating an information thief – it usually ends in a prosecution.
    CT, if I read you right I think you agree, needs to be preventive. The FBI has done some prevents since 9/11; DoD, NSA and CIA as well. The FBI also has Whidby Island and Waco in their recent past. The work of their Anti-terrorist Hostage Rescue Team. Don’t think that is the kind of thing we want.
    Given the current sad state of affairs at DHS, do you really want THEM chartered as the primary US based CT agency, with an HRT and investigative powers? (and yes, CT has to include investigative functions as well).
    Just thinking aloud.

  6. John Burgess says:

    Is Mr. McNicoll perhaps refering to the Culinary Institute of America? His portrait cannot possibly be of the Central Intelligence Agency.

    I’ve worked with hundreds of CIA folks and the ones abroad (most of the ones I know) were uniformly competent in the language of their assigned countries. Of course, some were better than others, but language capability was certainly there. They were equally down with cultural awareness.

    CIA hasn’t been staffed with predominently Ivy Leaguers since Allen Dulles was running things. And even then, it wasn’t a matter of where you graduated from, but what your connections were. Connections can be useful or unuseful. The answer lay in the particular officer.

    Are there losers in the CIA and FBI? Absolutely. But I’d judge the agencies overall to be above the curve in most matters. That doesn’t guarantee there won’t be echo chambers though.

  7. Rob says:

    The “Absence of Language & Cultural Skills”..
    referred to F.B.I., (the C.I.A. does have: habilidades linguisticas y culturales)

    As AP Article Documented:
    (Still Today) F.B.I.’s “Ideal Agents = Accountants and Lawyers”, and proud of it.

    Quote: “the FBI has done little to hire and promote people with expertise in terrorism or the Middle East. That does not look to change any time soon.

    FBI Failed to Hire, Promote Terror Experts (AP)”

  8. Robert says:

    United States Constitution, Amendment IV:

    “The Right of the People to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be siezed.”

    July 6, 2004 Christian Science Monitor:

    Pentagon seeks OK to spy on Americans

    New bill would allow Pentagon to gather intelligence on US residents without their knowledge.

    by Tom Regan | Christian Science Monitor / csmonitor.com


    Newsweek reports that the US Department of Defense is looking for the right to gather information from, and about, Americans, without having to tell them that they are doing so. “Without a public hearing or debate,” the news magazine reports, “Defense officials recently slipped a provision into a bill before Congress that could vastly expand the Pentagon’s ability to gather intelligence inside the United States, including recruiting citizens as informants.”

    Currently all military intelligence organizations must comply with the Privacy Act. The act is a Watergate-era law that requires that any government official who is seeking information from a resident of the US disclose who they are and why they are seeking the information. But Newsweek reports that last month the Senate Intelligence Committee, in closed session, added the provision that would exempt the Pentagon from this restriction. The bill is S.2386, in specific Sec.502 – Defense intelligence exemption from certain Privacy Act requirements.

    Among those pushing for the bill was “NORTHCOM,” the new North American command set up by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in Colorado. NORTHCOM’s mission is to over see “homeland defense, worldwide”.

    Secretary Rumsfeld has also created a “Special Operations Group” within the Pentagon, “Free to Infiltrate and Act in any country (Deemed) opposed to U. S. Interests” without any oversight by Congress”.

    A report by the Senate Intelligence Committee says the provision would allow military intel agents to “approach potential sources and collect personal information from them” without disclosing they work for the government.

    The justification: “Current counterterrorism operations,” the report explains, which require “greater latitude … both overseas and within the United States.” … Pentagon lawyers insist agents will still be legally barred from domestic “law enforcement.” But watchdog groups see a potentially alarming “mission creep.”

    “This… is giving them the authority to spy on Americans,” said Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, a group frequently critical of the war on terror. “And it’s all been done with no public discussion, in the dark of night.”

    Spencer Ackerman, of The New Republic, writes on how the operation of the office of undersecretary of defense for intelligence in March of 2003, currently filled by the controversial Stephen Cambone, has turned into a power struggle for the control of intelligence between the Pentagon and the CIA.

    Currently, all intelligence agencies, even military ones, fall under the titular control of the director of central intelligence. But the creation of the new undersecretary position, Mr. Ackerman writes, has prompted intelligence observers to suggest that Mr. Rumsfeld is trying to create a new center of gravity for the US intelligence community in the Pentagon.

    The Pentagon’s increasing assertiveness on intelligence matters is already cause for concern, as Abu Ghraib shows. But there’s a broader issue beyond the scandal. The rise of a new intelligence czar at the Pentagon sets the stage for another round of bruising bureaucratic turf wars between the Department of Defense and the CIA – one with large implications for the war on terrorism – at a time when Langley, weakened by George Tenet’s departure, is ill-prepared to do battle with Rumsfeld and his deputies.

    Former Republican congressman Bob Barr, writing in the Washington Times, argues that it would be a mistake for President Bush to allow Rumsfeld and Mr. Cambone to gain control of US intelligence.

    If in fact [Rumsfeld]and his military intelligence team, headed by [Cambone], are able to take advantage of the leadership uncertainty at the CIA, and if Mr. Bush allows this to happen or encourages it by naming Congressman Porter to replace Mr. Tenet, then the goal of a truly independent foreign intelligence apparatus to serve the president objectively – a goal the Defense Department has resisted for 55 years – will be unceremoniously laid to rest. The mistakes of the past will be, sadly, then repeated.

    The Pentagon came under scrutiny in several other areas this week.

    Jim Lobe, a longtime critic of the neoconservatives within and outside the Pentagon, writes in the Asia Times that plans are to turn Iraq into a pro-US base in the heart of the Arab world (14 major bases are being completed)”the Pentagon is busy “reinventing” US forces worldwide as “globocops” free to act without United States Congressional Approvals.

    “Destabilization Attacks” into Iran have already commenced using Saddam’s MEKA organization! No Congressional Appoval was Required!

    The repositioning of US military forces outside the United States in Iraq, make the US “capable of acting covertly pre-empting any possible threat to its interests at a moment’s notice.” Mr. Lobe writes that the new deployment seem to aim for the creation of a “Pax Americana.”