Monday, June 20, 2005

You’ve Seen One Bombing, You’ve Seen Them All…

Remember the War On Terror and how is was supposed to be the biggest threat to our nation since the fall of the Soviet Union? President Bush made it his highest priority and basically ran and won re-election on how he was the right person to guard the nation against terrorism. Well, then, you’d think that some passing knowledge of terrorism and its historical roots might have some bearing on choosing the people to fight it, wouldn’t you? Ah, but you would be wrong.

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.

Bald, the FBI’s current anti-terrorism chief, said his first training in that area came “on the job” when he moved to headquarters to oversee anti-terrorism strategy two years ago. when asked about his grasp of Middle Eastern culture and history, he replied: “I wish that I had it. It would be nice.”


Pat D’Amuro, one of the FBI’s most-experienced senior terrorism managers, testified he didn’t conduct a systematic search for the bureau’s most talented Middle Eastern and terrorism agents worldwide after Sept. 11. Instead, he said, he brought to Washington the agents he personally knew had worked successfully on al-Qaida and other terrorism cases.

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

“It could be a benefit. When you look for managers, you’re looking for people that can lead people, manage people, knows how to conduct an investigation, knows how to collect certain intelligence or information, you know,” D’Amuro testified.

Youssef, the agent suing the bureau, was credited with improving relations with Saudi Arabia during the late 1990s as bin Laden’s threat grew and the bureau struggled to solve the case of the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing that killed 19 U.S. service personnel.

He received a special award from the intelligence community for meritorious work and was singled out by his managers for “continuous creativity and perseverance” in terrorism cases. Saudi officials said they regarded Youssef as the most skilled U.S. agent in conducting lie detector tests on Arabic-speaking suspects.

But after Sept. 11, Youssef repeatedly was passed over for top-level headquarters jobs in terrorism. Instead, he was offered same-rank positions in budgeting or exploiting intelligence from terrorism documents.

So the best criterion for choosing the top-level agents in the war on terrorism comes down to cronyism: “Hey, I know this guy…”

I feel so much safer.