WASHINGTON – 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."
FBI agent Bassem Youssef (search) has questioned under oath many of the bureau's top leaders, including Director Robert Mueller (search) and his predecessor, Louis Freeh (search), in an effort to show he was passed over for top counterterrorism 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 anti-terrorism or Middle East experience.
"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 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.
Watson 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 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 Qaeda (search) 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 (search) 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.
Freeh, the former FBI director who left that job three months before Sept. 11, 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."