Whistleblower trial highlights FBI's post-9/11 transformation

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By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 29, 2010

An FBI whistleblower trial has cast a spotlight on the bureau's difficult transition from a crime-fighting agency into a counterterrorism and intelligence force, as seen through the career of its highest-ranking Arab American agent.

Over a two-week trial in Washington, a federal jury heard for the first time how Bassem Youssef, 52, an Egyptian-born Coptic Christian, recruited the U.S. government's top informant in the terror cell that bombed the World Trade Center in 1993.

Youssef alleged, however, that he was sidelined during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks after publicly airing concerns about the FBI's dearth of Middle Eastern experts.

Instead, in the eight years since filing suit in 2002, the 22-year bureau veteran has played a role in exposing top counterterrorism officials' ignorance of al-Qaeda and violent Islamist extremism in 2005 and the agency's struggle to correct its illegal collection of thousands of phone records of Americans between 2003 and 2006. Youssef also has warned Congress of urgent vacancies in top terrorism investigative slots.

On Monday, a jury before U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollyer-Kotelly in Washington ended one strand of litigation entangling the parties, denying Youssef's claim that the FBI denied him opportunities to qualify for promotion in 2004 and 2005 because of his whistleblowing.

Nevertheless, Youssef returned to work Tuesday as head of an FBI technical unit that analyzes telephone and electronic communications for terrorism clues. He also will continue to pursue his related legal claims that bureaucratic pride led the FBI to discriminate against or ignore Arabic or Muslim experts and deny his promotion or transfer.

Stephen M. Kohn, Youssef's lawyer and director of the National Whistleblowers Center, said his client is the latest post-9/11 FBI whistleblower to have tried to pull back a curtain on what he called the agency's "culture of intransigence."

Kohn cited agents such as Mike German, Robert Wright, Jane Turner and John Roberts, and contract translator Sibel Edmonds, who were forced out after reporting wrongdoing related to terrorism, intelligence or other investigative activities.

"It's an institution that is very harsh on its internal critics," Kohn said. "There has never been a whistleblower, no matter how righteous their issue, that the institution has welcomed."

Spokesmen for the FBI and Justice Department declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation. But the bureau's defenders say such cases present only a sliver of its post-9/11 transformation, in which it has reorganized itself, doubled the number of agents assigned to national security, and tripled the number of intelligence analysts.

"Just like there are a lot of good football players who could never coach a football team, there are a lot of great agents who could never run a national-level program," Arthur M. Cummings, the FBI's recently retired top national security official, said of Youssef.

In court, government lawyers played down Youssef's record, describing a chronically depressed and impolitic - if not angry - functionary who became bogged down in litigation, missed work and lost sight of the FBI's elite counterterrorism division's mission to protect the public.


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