- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 29, 2008

Lawmakers are demanding that the FBI explain “unacceptable vacancy rates” in the bureau’s counterterrorism division and have asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate the impact of current FBI staff shortages.

“This [staffing] shortage is hampering the FBI’s most important mission, exacerbating problems in complying with procedural safeguards in the use of national security letters, and preventing the bureau from building a cadre of experienced counterterrorism experts,” members of the Senate and House Judiciary committees said in a letter this week to Gene L. Dodaro, acting comptroller general of the GAO.

The letter is signed by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat; Judiciary Committee member Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican; House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat; Judiciary Committee member Rep. Robert C. Scott, Virginia Democrat; and Judiciary Committee member Rep. Louie Gohmert, Texas Republican.

FBI spokesman Richard Kolko yesterday said the bureau is aware of the letter and, in coordination with the Justice Department, “will work directly with the GAO and respond appropriately.”

The letter was written in response to a senior FBI official’s testimony last week to the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime, terrorism and homeland security.

Bassem Youssef, chief of the communications analysis unit in the FBI’s counterterrorism division, told the subcommittee that critical supervisory personnel within the bureau’s International Terrorism Operations Sections (ITOS) are “inexcusably understaffed.”

He said a 62 percent staffing level among the ITOS I section forced the bureau to recruit supervisors who lacked the necessary background and expertise. ITOS I covers al Qaeda terrorist activity on a regional basis in the United States and abroad. It is part of the FBI’s counterterrorism division that deals with terrorist threats inside the United States, provides information on terrorists outside the country and tracks known terrorists worldwide.

Because of the shortages and a lack of experienced managers, Mr. Bassem said, the FBI cannot properly defend the United States against “another catastrophic and direct attack by Middle Eastern terrorists.”

The lawmakers asked the GAO to determine the extent of the vacancy problem, its effect on the counterterrorism mission, the vacancy rates in other FBI divisions and components, trends in vacancy rates in each component over time and what the FBI has done to reduce the vacancies.

They also want the GAO to determine the “attitudes and beliefs of rank-and-file FBI personnel who have left FBI components with unacceptable vacancy rates in the last 5 years about the reasons for those vacancy rates.”

An FBI e-mail in March to all counterterrorism employees at FBI headquarters in Washington 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. It is critical to the [counterterrorism] mission that these positions be filled as soon as possible.”

Earlier this week, FBI Assistant Director John Miller said the bureau has made “great and steady strides to build a domestically focused national security organization” and has shifted its priorities to make prevention of another terrorist attack its top concern.

Mr. Miller said several years have passed without a terrorist attack by al Qaeda or its affiliates on U.S. soil, and that by combining the FBI’s intelligence-gathering capabilities with its law-enforcement experience and authority, as well as its intelligence community partners and state and local authorities, the bureau has disrupted several terrorist plots nationwide and globally.

Noting that the FBI operates within a specific budget, 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.”

“Our greatest resource has always been our people - they make up the difference every day, because they are dedicated to the mission of protecting the American people from threats near and far,” he said.