In an exclusive interview with NPR, an official at the heart of U.S. anti-terrorism efforts discusses the dispute over whether the U.S. is violating civil liberties.
Bassem Youssef is an FBI special agent and chief of the unit responsible for two warrantless search programs.
He is already known as a whistleblower. In 2002, he said discriminatory practices within the bureau were hobbling efforts to fight terrorism.
The Justice Department found later that the FBI illegally retaliated against Youssef after he made those claims, and he has a lawsuit pending against the agency.
On Saturday, Youssef was planning to make a speech in Philadelphia to the American Library Association, but the FBI barred him from making that speech. The agency is, however, permitting him to answer questions about what he wanted to say in that speech.
He talks to Michele Norris.
What were you planning to say to the American Library Association before your employer, the FBI, stepped in and objected?
The entire issue that I want to share with the American public, and with the proper authorities, is that the FBI's counterterrorism division is not staffed with the right people, with those who have the expertise and have the know-how and the experience working in counterterrorism matters, especially Middle Eastern counterterrorism matters, before Sept. 11. And that lack of expertise is going to hamper our war on terror.
What specific expertise is lacking?
I believe that, first of all, a language, knowing the language and the culture in the group that you're working against is very important.
The language and the culture?
Absolutely. You also must know your enemy, regardless of what avenue, what front you are fighting the enemy on, you must know your enemy. And if you don't have an understanding of your enemy, they will be elusive and they will escape you.
Is it that they might miss things or that they might misinterpret things? Because you're talking about surveillance here, you're talking about basically giving the green light for what is essentially a big fishing expedition, looking at people's personal records.
Absolutely. For example, if you attribute exigency or an emergency to a particular case, and it's not, how does that relate to a case that may be an emergency and you should be looking at and you should put all of your resources on? If you can't make that differentiation, we will lose both ways. The cases that should be looked at, we're not looking at. The threats that we're not looking at, we're actually looking at.
To your knowledge, are there cases where these sort of investigations, this kind of warrantless surveillance, is launched based on false information or the false reading of information?
Absolutely. I've seen that in my capacity as the chief of the communications analysis unit. I can't go into any sort of detail, obviously, because these investigations are classified.
If I may push us a little bit further, are there people who are being investigated, people whose personal information is under review without their knowledge, who should not be in that position because information was misread?
I can't answer that question directly, but I can say, that if we are misreading the leads that we have, our results will also be incorrect. But I would not feel comfortable going into more detail than that.
Is there any way to quantify that? How many people do you think are improperly targeted?
I can't really get into that or address it because statistics can get me in trouble.
I understand that, but I'm sure the people listening to this right now are asking themselves that question.
And it sounds like you're saying it happens. You just can't say how often.
Now, you have been pointing out these flaws within the system. You actually pointed this out beginning in 2002. Are you talking about the same problems that you addressed then and how has the FBI addressed this since you — it's been almost five years that you've been talking about this?
That's a very good point. The root cause is the same and that is lack of experience, lack of expertise, and the insistence that neither is necessary to run the FBI at all levels. The lack of expertise in operational counterterrorism is going to harm us in the future. The same thing is happening with the administrative tools that we use, for example, the national security letters or the exigent letters or the warrantless searches. Those are going to hurt us, not just operationally, but it will also hurt the civil liberties of the American people.
So what will it take to actually address this problem?
For the FBI, first of all, to admit we do have problems in terms of recruiting the right people for the right positions. There [is] no doubt. And I want the American people to know this, that there are great, highly dedicated FBI agents and analysts who want to do the right thing, who want to win the war on terror. But we just don't have the proper placement of those people in the right positions.
Now, you stepped out and you pointed out these flaws as you see them. Is there a course of other FBI employees who take the same position, or are you the lone voice on this?
I am the lone voice, publicly, because I anticipate, and I have in the past been retaliated against mercilessly, if I might even add. So because of that, I believe that the other FBI employees who feel the same way and who understand the problem will not speak out because of it.
I just want to ask you about this agreement that you've reached with the FBI. You are allowed to speak to the American Library Association; you just can't deliver a speech, but you can take questions. And I imagine that some of those questions will allow you to talk about some of the things that you were planning to address in your speech. That's curious.
That is curious, in fact. There was no speech written, but I believe just the gist of what I will be speaking about was something that they had issues with.
How do you expect that they are going to react to this? How do you think they're going to react to the fact that you're talking about these things right here in Studio 2A at NPR?
I'm not clairvoyant enough to know exactly what's going to happen, but I would assume that there could be retaliation against me again in some kind of —
And you're willing to do this despite that?
I need to do this, for several reasons. But the most important reason is, we need to change our ways. And I want the American public to know because I can't do this alone.
Are you confident that the FBI will address these matters?
I will say the track record that I have seen so far, I don't believe that will be the case.
You're not optimistic.
All Things Considered asked the FBI to respond to Youssef's claims that lagging experience and language skills are hampering antiterrorism efforts and causing civil liberties violations.
Assistant Director John Miller says the bureau does need more Arab expertise.
As for wrongful investigations or missed opportunities, Miller says that missed opportunities will inevitably occur in the course of investigating thousands and thousands of cases.
"That's just a numeric certainty and the fact that we're dealing with human beings, and you're going to look at people who eventually don't pan out into suspects.
"But I don't think you can attribute that on the whole to a lack of cultural understanding. Now, would we like to have more people within the FBI that have that ethnic background, cultural understanding? Yes," Miller says.
For instance, Miller says that the FBI has more than doubled its Arab language analysts since 2001, but it has been a difficult process.
"We've put up recruiting booths at Arab-American organizations' functions and conventions. We've contacted leaders and done extensive reach-out. It is not because we have had a steady stream of applicants that we've been turning away. We've worked very hard at this," he says.
Miller notes that there has not been another attack on American soil since Sept. 11, 2001.
"I don't think you can extrapolate from that that we're making the wrong calls or doing things wrong. It just doesn't add up."