AP: Terror Expertise Not Priority at FBI
WASHINGTON (AP) - 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.''
``You need leadership. You don't need subject matter expertise,'' Bald testified in an ongoing FBI employment case. ``It is certainly not what I look for in selecting an official for a position in a counterterrorism position.''
In a development that has escaped public attention, FBI agent Bassem Youssef has questioned under oath many of the FBI's top leaders, including Director Robert Mueller and his predecessor, Louis Freeh, in an effort to show he has passed over for top terrorism jobs despite his expertise. Testimony from his lawsuit was recently sent to Congress.
Those who have held the bureau's top terrorism fighting jobs since Sept. 11 often said in their testimony that they - and many they have promoted since - had no significant terrorism or Middle East experience. Some could not even explain the difference between Sunnis and Shiites, the two primary groups of Muslims.
``Probably the strongest leader I know in counterterrorism has no counterterrorism in his background,'' Bald insisted.
The hundreds of pages of testimony obtained by The Associated Press contrast with assurances Mueller repeatedly has 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 its managers, the FBI said it has fundamentally reshaped itself to ensure the field agents on the ground who work the cases have the necessary skills, training and background for fighting terrorism. It noted 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 Director Cassandra Chandler told the AP.
``New agents receive personalized training from Muslim leaders. Street agents and managers in every field office have gotten to know the Middle Eastern and Muslim communities in their territories and regularly attend training sessions sponsored by community leaders,'' she said.
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 spurned agent is one of the government's most skilled terrorism fighters and that the FBI overall remains 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.
``Knowing about counterterrorism would help a supervisor ensure a proper investigation and avoid missing important aspects of the case,'' he said.
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.
John Pikus, who held a key supervisory job during the reallocation of agents from traditional crime-fighting to terrorism, testified that the FBI did not create new screening standards to promote terrorism experts to its upper ranks.
``Strengthening up the criteria for selection,'' Pikus answered when asked where the FBI was deficient in its terrorism hiring.
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.
``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,'' he testified.
When asked if he had any formal terrorism training that justified his appointment as the No. 3 FBI official, Bald said, ``It would have been on-the-job in the counterterrorism division.'' Bald entered the counterterrorism division in 2003 after leading the FBI's Baltimore office during the Washington sniper case.
The assistant Bald brought in to run the division last year gave a similar account.
``It's a tremendous learning experience, the seat that I'm sitting in. You learn every single day about this,'' Deputy Assistant Director John Lewis testified.
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.
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.
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.
Freeh, the former FBI director who left that job three months before the terrorist attacks, testified that he believed Youssef should have gotten an important terror-fighting job in the post-Sept. 11 era
``I think, you know, given his experience, certainly his language, you know, domestically he would probably have a much more required role and be of greater help back at headquarters,'' Freeh said.
One FBI supervisor, just-retired Agent Paul Vick, testified that Youssef had the ``many skills that were badly needed'' after Sept. 11 and the FBI's failure to utilize him was ``inappropriate and a waste of a very important human resource.''
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