More than one out of every three positions in an elite FBI division that tracks al Qaeda terrorists is vacant, according to an internal bureau document. Efforts are under way at the FBI to canvass for "volunteers" to fill what the agency said is a "critical" need in its counterterrorism efforts.
A senior bureau official said yesterday that because of significant staffing shortages and a lack of experienced managers, the FBI cannot properly defend the United States against "another catastrophic and direct attack by Middle Eastern terrorists."
Bassem Youssef, chief of the communications analysis unit of the FBI's counterterrorism division, said the bureau's International Terrorism Operations Sections (ITOS) - which include those that track al Qaeda terrorists - are "inexcusably understaffed."
FBI Assistant Director John Miller rebutted the charge late yesterday, saying the bureau had made "great and steady strides to build a domestically focused national security organization" and shifted its priorities to make prevention of another terrorist attack its top concern.
Mr. Miller noted that several years had passed without a successful terrorist attack by al Qaeda or its affiliates on U.S. soil. He said that by combining the FBI's intelligence-gathering capabilities with its law-enforcement experience and authority, as well as its state and local partners, the bureau has disrupted several terrorist plots across the country and, by working with its intelligence community partners, it has helped to disrupt more plots globally.
"While we appreciate any employee's views on the state and direction of the FBI, those assessments may be very limited in scope," he said. "It is cynical to write off the work of so many dedicated FBI employees or the accomplishments of the bureau by suggesting that these efforts are failing, especially when they are not."
Mr. Youssef, in a written statement delivered to the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime, terrorism and homeland security, said critical supervisory personnel within ITOS are at a staffing level of 62 percent, which has forced the FBI to recruit supervisors who lack the necessary background and expertise.
The FBI's highest-ranking Arab-American agent and an FBI whistleblower who is suing the bureau for discrimination, Mr. Youssef cited a March 5 FBI e-mail sent to all counterterrorism employees at FBI headquarters in Washington that said: "Executive management is canvassing the division for volunteers to be permanently assigned to ITOS 1. This is due to the fact that ITOS 1 is currently at 62% of its funded staffing level."
He said the memo also stated: "It is critical to the [counterterrorism] mission that these positions be filled as soon as possible."
"The failure of the FBI to build a cadre of experts in Middle Eastern terrorism - as promised immediately after the 9/11 attacks - has resulted in critical personnel shortages and lapses in competence within the most important FBI positions concerning Middle Eastern terrorist threats," Mr. Youssef said.
Mr. Miller did not address specific staff vacancies but said the bureau 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."
"We have worked hard to staff positions at FBI headquarters while at the same time being careful not to do so at the expense of the field offices," he said. "We have worked diligently through our community outreach and recruitment efforts to attract and hire more Arabic-speaking agents as well those with other critical language and cultural backgrounds.
"In the FBI, like any other government agency, resources will be an issue. We operate within the limits of those resources, but over the last 100 years, our greatest resource has always been our people," he said. "They make up the difference every day, because they are dedicated to the mission of protecting the American people from threats near and far."
The FBI's counterterrorism division deals with terrorist threats inside the United States, provides information on terrorists outside the country and tracks known terrorists worldwide. With huge budget increases in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, it includes ITOS I, which covers al Qaeda terrorist activity on a regional basis in the United States and abroad, and ITOS II, which focuses on four non-al Qaeda groups: Palestinian rejectionist groups, Iran and Hezbollah, Iraq/Syria/Libya, and other global terrorist groups.
Mr. Youssef, who was scheduled to testify during a subcommittee hearing on FBI whistleblowers, also said a bureau policy mandating that its agents, ITOS supervisors and counterterrorism managers do not need "subject matter expertise" in Middle Eastern counterterrorism is "indefensible and counterproductive."
He also said an FBI policy of promoting agents to its upper-management positions who have no "comprehension of the Arabic language" had resulted in the bureau's failure to have a management capable of responding to "real-time potential threats or opportunities." He said "an overdependency" of translators "can and does delay responses to situations that are time critical."
"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," he said.
In January, the FBI said it had 46 agents and 285 language analysts who spoke at least conversational Arabic, "enough qualified personnel to do our job," although it was continuing to recruit additional Arabic speakers.
Mr. Youssef, who was born in Egypt, has accused the FBI of improperly denying him promotions in the counterterrorism division - an accusation denied by the bureau. In July 2006, the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility concluded that the FBI had retaliated against Mr. Youssef because of disclosures he made to the agency's director and a member of Congress.
No trial date has been set.