Members of the FBI surveillance teams that secretly track terrorists, spies and mobsters on U.S. soil are increasingly frustrated their mission is being hampered by internal politics and nepotism, according to interviews and documents.
FBI memos reviewed by The Washington Times show at least three younger relatives of high-ranking bureau supervisors have landed jobs on the elite surveillance teams in recent years, with two fast-tracked to full special agent status.
In addition, some FBI local offices that ranked high on a threat and needs matrix for surveillance were passed over for new teams last year in favor of more politically connected offices that ranked lower, the records show.
The worries have grown so widespread that one longtime decorated surveillance team member has sought whistleblower protection, taking his colleagues’ concerns to both the Justice Department’s inspector general and the Senate Committee on the Judiciary.
The whistleblower told The Times he initially went to supervisors, who dismissed the problems and then gave him a poor personnel review. So he then went to Congress because he fears current practices are jeopardizing the war on terror and the bureau’s counterintelligence operations.
“Who gets what surveillance teams — it’s now all about bias and favoritism and the good ol’ boy system,” the whistleblower said in an interview with The Times, speaking only on condition of anonymity because his identity is supposed to remain secret during surveillance. “My division — although we had the statistics to prove we needed more personnel — got skipped over because executive management had an ax to grind.”
FBI officials readily acknowledge a handful of top managers’ children or relatives landed jobs on the surveillance teams, but they insist the hirings were governed by the bureau’s strongly worded policy that outlaws favoritism in hiring.
“All applicants go through a rigorous selection process, including structured interviews and security background investigations,” the bureau said. “Personnel matters that have the potential of being viewed as an act of nepotism are subject to appropriate administrative action.”
The FBI also confirmed that some offices that scored high for surveillance needs were skipped over in favor of lower-ranked offices.
Officials said that while the matrix evaluation was carefully conducted, it also allowed for some discretion by managers to change rankings.
“Due to limited resources, not all field offices that qualified for an additional surveillance team were provided one. Both the selection process and the final determinations were subjected to an extensive review process and approved by executive management,” the bureau said in its statement to The Times.
The whistleblower disclosures come at a sensitive time for the bureau, which still faces questions as to why it had not more aggressively tracked the Tsarnaev brothers, who are suspected in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, after Russian authorities had tipped the agency about the pair.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, said his office is examining the whistleblower’s concerns, particularly on how the FBI initially handled the accusations and their employee when he came forward.
“Whenever an employee comes forward like this with concerns about waste and mismanagement, the Bureau should be grateful that it has someone willing to step up and point out problems,” Mr. Grassley said in a statement to The Washington Times. “But too often, the whistleblower gets punished for doing the right thing.”
The whistleblower’s personnel file shows that, for most of the last two decades, he received high ratings and frequent praise for his surveillance work, including numerous awards and commendations as well as personal letters of gratitude directly from FBI directors when he worked in the Washington, D.C., area. He received a rating of “excellent” in 2013 in his new division.
But after he questioned management in 2014 as to why his division was passed over for a new surveillance team it had earned in the rankings, the whistleblower was given a first-ever negative evaluation.
“I’ve been retaliated against just for asking a fair question,” he told The Times.
The surveillance units — often known as “G-teams” — consist of covert tracking specialists who do not have the rank of special agents, and they are funded through the black budget since they work on counterterrorism and counterintelligence.
Their exact whereabouts and numbers are generally kept secret from the public — as are the identities of the team members. But a nonclassified memo obtained by The Times indicated there are 54 field offices spread across the country, with about eight people on an average team, and many cities qualify for multiple teams.
Data accuracy questions
Congress gets regular reports on the program because of its sensitive work and the possibility that surveillance of Americans could violate privacy rights. Reports of activities are prepared about every six months, but Congress at any time can request the information, and has been doing so more as terrorist jihad groups grow overseas.
But some team members, including the whistleblower, expressed concerns that Congress was being kept in the dark about surveillance staffing decisions and hirings that aren’t being made on merits.
One email shows a supervisor directly dismissed the whistleblower’s concerns that Congress should be notified.
“The Senate has much more important work to do than worry about which offices received assets,” Scott Brunner, a former FBI assistant special agent in charge, wrote in an April 2014 email to the whistleblower.
Mr. Brunner has since left the division, becoming the legal attache for the FBI’s Bogota, Colombia, office. He did not return phone calls seeking comment.
The whistleblower related a story about how his division superiors wanted to promote an older FBI employee to the surveillance team because his appearance and skills matched the job, but they were turned down by Washington. They also were rejected for an additional team after scoring high on the list of offices in need of surveillance expansion.
The whistleblower said he was told the reason for both rejections was office politics, essentially bad blood between a supervisor in his division and the surveillance brass in Washington.
Politics at play in terror war?
The whistleblower’s account is echoed in an email from a senior official in Washington who handled the surveillance program scoring system.
The email says his effort to alert his bosses that resources may not be properly delegated was altered by Washington bureaucrats. “They changed my white paper, the degree to which I don’t know,” the Washington supervisor wrote in 2014.
He noted that the unit leadership held “disdain” for the whistleblower’s office that affected decisions. And some surveillance team members across the country were disturbed that the unit boss “has so much power” and “exercises most of it with little oversight, if any, from superiors,” he wrote in the email.
Other “G-team” leaders voiced similar frustrations in interviews or contemporaneous documents. FBI offices with just one team would like to either have a staff member added to handle their administrative work or be paid more to do the extra workload themselves.
After voicing these complaints, another team member in a Midwestern division was told by Washington brass that an additional team may happen if the complaints stopped. He responded he couldn’t be bought. Statistically, that division didn’t qualify for another team on a needs basis, but it did want an added coordinator, according to interviews.
The FBI now investigates an average of more than six new terrorist threats per day, according to the most recent statistics, which were compiled back in 2004, and the G-teams often find themselves as part of some of the FBI’s biggest cases. The teams started operations in the 1970s in New York City as a pilot program using their spycraft to help track and monitor potential Soviet threats.
One of their greatest successes was helping to discover Robert Hanssen, a former FBI official who spied for the Soviet Union for 20 years, all the while working for U.S. intelligence.
Shortly after their pilot program, the G-teams went national. The organization has grown from a few employees into a sprawling bureaucracy.
Nepotism concerns surface
Growth of those units has created an opportunity, however, for some of the FBI’s top management to place adult children into the surveillance teams as a way of getting them on a fast track to becoming an agent.
According to documents and interviews, there have been at least three paternal hirings in recent years within the FBI’s special surveillance group. Two of those operatives advanced to become FBI special agents, and the third remains on a G-team.
In addition, a fourth nepotism case has been alleged involving a resident agency that, alongside the local G-team, reports to the Little Rock, Arkansas, FBI office. That person later landed a plum job in the Washington office of FBI Director James B. Comey.
G-team members told The Times they did not oppose hiring agents’ relatives if they were qualified and willing to learn the craft of surveillance, but many seemed to just be passing through as ticket punchers, and one had serious skill deficiencies.
For example, a G-team member hired in the late-‘90s was the son of a well-known FBI legal attache and special agent in charge in Europe.
The son was retained by the FBI even though he failed his map-reading test six times before being placed on a surveillance team, according to a source inside the bureau who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. Usually one failure would be enough to remove an operative from the elite program, insiders say, because map reading is a necessary skill within the espionage world.
Eventually, the agent’s son was promoted to a supervisory special agent in New York City, records show.
In another case, a G-team operative hired last year was the child of an assistant unit chief in the surveillance program. The candidate got to choose which office he wanted to work in — a rarity in the surveillance unit, which sends personnel where surveillance is most needed. He chose an office where his father had good friends and therefore would receive good treatment, according to interviews.
A third G-team member, hired a few years ago, was the daughter of a high-ranking and decorated FBI official key to the bureau’s languages program, and was a highly decorated agent. The woman has now risen to become an agent herself in the Washington, D.C., area.
Separately from the G-teams, in a resident agency that reports to Little Rock, Arkansas, a position within the FBI was held for the offspring of an agency supervisor until the child graduated from college. The woman ended up graduating from school a semester late, but the division held the position open until she could graduate.
The student’s job was to report directly to her father, so the FBI, not wanting to set off alarm bells, hired another supervisor so she could report to a nonrelative.
Later, when the father was transferred to a legal attache office overseas, the daughter was given a plum position in Washington, D.C., working in the FBI director’s office — just a year after graduating from college.
The Times chose not to name any of the three G-team operatives or the FBI hire to avoid compromising their current or past undercover surveillance work or alerting terrorists to their identity.
Government watchdogs say the surveillance team members and the public have reason to be concerned about the hiring pattern.
“When hiring decisions are based on who you know rather than what you know, the federal government isn’t operating to its fullest potential,” said Scott Amey, the general counsel at the nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight. “We don’t like cozy relationships and sweetheart deals when it comes to contractors or grantees, and the same holds true for pulling strings to benefit family and friends.”
Concerns about possible nepotism stretch far beyond the FBI.
The Justice Department, which oversees the bureau, has been plagued with nepotism charges over the past decade.
A DOJ inspector general report released last month found the head of the International Crime Police Organization, another law enforcement agency, used his position to secure a job for his son and other relatives.
And a November investigation discovered certain offices in the DOJ had a “pervasive culture of nepotism and favoritism,” making it at least the fifth inspector general report since 2004 to find hiring problems at the agency.
In response to the repeated nepotism charges, Justice said it would strengthen its hiring training for employees, especially regarding the agency’s nepotism rules.
Lawmakers remain unhappy.
“There is no room for nepotism in the federal government’s hiring practices,” Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican and House Judiciary Committee chairman, said recently. “Those hired to serve taxpayers must earn — not be given — the job.”