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.
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.