The FBI lacks agents fluent in Arabic and must undergo a review of its counter-insurgency program, a top official testified. Bassem Youssef, a chief in the FBI’s Communications Analysis Unit, said the agency has refused to hirer train agents fluent in Arabic. In written testimony to the House Judiciary Subcommittee, Youssef, a 20-year veteran, appealed to Congress to authorize an independent review of the U.S. counter-insurgency program. He asserted that the FBI’s counter-insurgency section was badly understaffed and filled with inexperienced managers.
Youssef, the FBI’s highest-ranking Arab-American agent and who has filed suit for discrimination, said that 40 percent of supervisory positions in the FBI’s unit that tracks Al Qaida and others deemed terrorists were vacant. He said FBI officials “rely exclusively on translation services” to understand communications from suspected Al Qaida and aligned insurgents. “The continuing failure of the FBI to hire or train agents who are fluent in Arabic, knowledgeable about the Middle East and/or experienced in operational counterterrorism is rooted in two factors,” Youssef said, “First, an ongoing policy which does not reward these skills in the promotional process and second, deep seated discriminatory practices within the bureau.”
In January 2008, the FBI reported staff of 46 agents and 285 language analysts who speak at least conversational Arabic. The agency has maintained that its Arabic speaking personnel was sufficient. “Since 9/11, but particularly over the past year, the FBI has been addressing staffing concerns, career path issues and how we can better leverage a strategic, intelligence-based view, across all of our investigative programs,” FBI assistant director John Miller said in a statement after Youssef’s testimony.
“The over-reliance upon translators within the counterterrorism program has undermined the ability of agents to properly understand, monitor, and evaluate threats,” Youssef said. “In other words, subtle messages and information not capable of ready translation or that which would be obvious to a native speaker who is simultaneously involved in operational activities are regularly lost.” As a result, Youssef said, the FBI “continue to make major mistakes” and has misidentified threats. He said the agency has relied heavily on electronic surveillance.
“A full independent review of the counterterrorism program is badly needed,” Youssef, who for years has been passed over for promotions, said on May 21. “The review must be conducted by persons with unquestionable expertise in Middle Eastern terrorism.”
“The mismanagement of the FBI’s counter-terrorism program has already resulted in the systemic and needless violation of the civil liberties of thousands of Americans, the misidentification of threats against the United States and repeated sloppy mistakes within the counter-terrorism program,” Youssef said. “The FBI policy to promote individuals to its upper management positions who have no comprehension of the Arabic language has resulted in the agency’s failure to have a management capable of responding to real time potential threats or opportunities.”
Miller said the FBI was at work on an initiative geared to establishing career planning for FBI employees. “Employees will select career paths in an area of expertise, such as counter-terrorism, counter-espionage or criminal investigation and stay with that discipline over their career,” he said.