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The FBI's Least Wanted

Special agent Bassem Youssef was one of the FBI's up-and-comers—fluent in Arabic, ambitious, with a record of spotting threats and cracking terrorist cells. So of course the bureau sent him to rot in a desk job.

Others in the intelligence community scoff at such claims. "Knowing about counterterrorism (say, for example, that most Al Qaeda operatives have a logistics team that prepares the way for them) would help a supervisor ensure a proper investigation and avoid missing important aspects of the case," wrote former CIA analyst Dan Byman in support of Youssef's suit. Michael German, a counterterrorism agent who quit the bureau in 2004 after blowing the whistle on his superiors for illegal wiretapping, described the FBI's position as "indefensible" and "ridiculous." He told me, "You wouldn't hire somebody to remodel your kitchen who didn't know anything about remodeling a kitchen."


 

Today, Youssef ostensibly heads up the Communications Analysis Unit, charged with processing bureau requests to private telecommunications firms for access to client records. It's a job in which "my language, my background, my operational experience, [and] my liaison experience...are not utilized at all," he says. "I'm at a point now where I'm not even utilized in the decision making within my own unit. Bosses will go right to my subordinates."

But if bureau executives thought that relegating Youssef to a desk job would keep him quiet, they were in for a disappointment. Shortly after Youssef took over as CAU unit chief in early 2005, he noticed widespread irregularities in the FBI's use of national security letters, a kind of administrative subpoena demanding customer information from private companies. After 9/11, the number of NSLs exploded, rising from 8,500 in 2000 to 143,000 between 2003 and 2005. Many were sent without any evidence linking them to ongoing counterterrorism investigations. The bureau also sent out hundreds of "exigent letters" demanding immediate access to telephone companies' client records without an official subpoena.

Youssef notified his supervisors of the scope of the problem. For months, they did nothing. Finally, in September 2005, the bureau's general counsel's office called a meeting. According to staffers for Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who has pressed for answers on why Youssef was sidelined so abruptly, FBI lawyers initially focused not on eliminating the abuse but on devising a legal work-around: the opening of a series of large, vaguely defined investigative files that could be used to gain access to the private records of US citizens. Youssef used his position at the CAU to block the plan. The following year, after word of the abuses leaked, Department of Justice inspector general Glenn Fine opened an official inquiry. Youssef became a material witness in the case and gave several days' worth of testimony, which made him even more unpopular with his colleagues. Youssef says one agent Fine interviewed later boasted that he "threw Youssef under the bus." Another agent was overheard asking a colleague if he was "getting ready to throw Bassem Youssef off the roof."

Historically, in its dealings with whistleblowers like Youssef, the bureau's instinct has been to go on the attack. "The Youssef case captures the cultural problem at the FBI," says Sen. Grassley. "It's an example of higher-ups and the bureaucracy spending a lot of energy and resources to kill the messenger."

Youssef knows there's little chance of resurrecting his career. He stays on at the bureau in the hope of changing the culture by example—though that may be unlikely under Mueller, whom Obama has retained as director. The counterterrorism division, he says, is no better prepared today than it was before 9/11, and might even be worse off. He invoked a M*A*S*H metaphor: "There's an episode where Colonel Potter's horse ran away. B.J. Hunnicutt and Hawkeye go looking for it. They don't know a thing about horses. Hawkeye's got this lasso, and he says, 'Anybody know anything about horses?' And his partner, B.J., says, 'I stepped into some horse manure once!' Hawkeye says, 'You're in charge.' That's the state of affairs in the counterterrorism division of the FBI."

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