By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 28, 2010; 11:57 PM
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 Kollar-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.
The seven jurors agreed, finding that the FBI did not deny Youssef assignments generally required for promotion to top posts because he met in June 2002 with Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) - who oversaw the FBI's budget - to air his concerns.
It is a situation few could have imagined when Youssef joined the FBI in 1988. A fluent Arabic speaker who immigrated with his family to suburban Los Angeles at 13, the naturalized U.S. citizen quickly was tapped in the investigation of Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal's organization's connection to a 1986 hijacking.
Detailed for the first time at trial, Youssef also recruited a source within a Los Angeles cell of Omar Abdel-Rahman's Islamic Group weeks before the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
The coup earned him the highest decoration awarded by the U.S. intelligence community, the National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal.
"It was the only source I know in the bureau where we had a source right in al-Qaeda directly involved," said Edward J. Curran, who was then in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles office.
"This had not been done before, and to the best of my knowledge, it has not been done again," said Curran, now the domestic and international intelligence liaison for the New York City police.
Youssef was tapped by then-Director Louis B. Freeh to open the FBI's liaison office in Saudi Arabia after the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996.
At the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, however, Youssef was not recalled to FBI headquarters. Supporters say he was mistaken internally for a Muslim agent who refused to wear a wire in an FBI investigation. An internal FBI review indicated that superiors revoked Youssef's transfer to a terrorism investigations section after his meeting with Wolf.
In depositions, the FBI's first two counterterrorism chiefs after the attacks, Dale Watson and Gary Bald, famously dismissed the bureau's need for experts in the Middle East or terrorism and struggled to describe the difference between Shiites and Sunnis, two major Muslim sects.
Even today, just 138 of 13,000 special agents have rudimentary Arabic skills. Only six, including Youssef, were rated "advanced professional" in 2006, although the bureau says the number rated with beyond-elementary proficiency has risen from 30 to 72 since 2001.
Youssef had the "many skills that were badly needed" by the FBI and his treatment was "a waste of a very important human resource," said one supervisor who retired in 2005, Agent Paul Vick.
Konrad Motyka, president of the FBI Agents Association, said, "That dichotomy between two missions, with a new director due on board in less than a year, is going to be critical to defining the soul of the organization."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.