I was too far down the totem pole at the FBI to remember Dennis Lormel or Pat D'Amuro as anything but names on memos requiring signatures. At Counterterrorism Blog, Mr. Lormel (now retired) defends the character and accomplishments of current and former Bureau senior counterterrorism officials from the half-truths and exaggerations of a recent NBC News hit-piece, er, report. I have to agree and disagree with him. He's right to defend the character, expertise and hard work of his friends and associates. However, I disagree with his somewhat romanticized description of the Bureau's counterterrorism operations and its accomplishments.
Lormel's post is a response to an irritating controversy surrounding one of the Bureau's perpetually aggrieved Muslim special agents, in this case Bassem Youssef. Apparently, during depositions in Youssef's lawsuit, his attorney asked a few senior officials about their basic knowledge of things Islamic and jihad-related. And apparently they couldn't answer with enough precision:
Dale Watson, now retired, was the FBI's top counterterrorism official before and after 9/11.
In a deposition taken on Dec. 8, 2004, Youssef’s lawyer Stephen Kohn asked Watson: “Do you know who Osama bin Laden's spiritual leader was?"
Watson: Can't recall.
Lawyer: And do you know the differences in the religion between Shiite and Sunni Muslims?
Watson: Not technically, no.
NBC reports this as a senior FBI official ignorant of the difference between Sunni and Shiite. I don't see it. The question is vague and could be answered in several different ways. Of the two highlighted the first question is the one that stands out. Apparently, the answer they were looking for is the Abdel-Rahman, aka the Blind Sheik. Really? He's not my first answer. I would have answered, Abdullah Azzam.
I wouldn't expect every special agent to know the name Abdullah Azzam coming in to the counterterrorism division; however, they should know it after they've moved on to something more exciting, like bank robberies. Subject matter knowledge in counterterrorism is easy to gain, you just have to be willing to read a few books, surf a few websites. But let's face it, the mainstream media doesn't have a -- blinking -- interest in improving the FBI's counterterrorism mandate. They're out to embarrass government officials.
However, I also believe that Mr. Lormel is romanticizing the Bureau's day-to-day counterterrorism operations, and its accomplishments:
Restructuring the Counterterrorism Division required significant resource enhancements. Many of the Agents reassigned to Counterterrorism, like myself, came from the Criminal Division and possessed minimal counterterrorism experience. One of the first things I did was to seek and receive as much training as possible about all facets of terrorism for myself and the personnel who worked for me. We received regular training and briefings from terrorism experts from both within and outside of the Bureau. We accomplished this while working 15 to 18 hour days.
I don't believe this. I worked with TFOS folks on several different cases, and fellow ITOS analysts in my section would have said something about all those lucky TFOS people getting all that training. It was never acknowledged. When I was there in 2003, TFOS had a handful of full-time analysts. Literally, you could count the number on one hand.
It's important to set the record straight. From the top down it may have appeared to be hard, worthy work, but from the bottom up it was soul-withering chaos. As an Intelligence Operations Specialist, I dealt with headquarters CT agents day in and day out. Of the dozen I knew well, I'd say three were serious about counterterrorism (the field agents were far more dedicated). The others were desk warmers thrown into the division to fullfill a bureaucratic requirement that they work at headquarters. None of them wanted to be there, and most were scheming for a new position from the first day they were assigned to the division.
Meanwhile, agents continued to treat the analytical staff like dirt. I had a ten-year research and management career (and a book published) before I even went to work for the Bureau. But to the special agents I worked with, I was a fetch and photocopy girl. Literally. I was told that my main tasks were to pick up draft FISA applications from one office and make copies of them. I spent two years working in international competitive intelligence, but at the Bureau I spent about a quarter of my time secure faxing documents to the field offices.
With all the claims of accomplishment and all the promises of a better tomorrow, the fact remains that five years after 9-11, the FBI is still reeling. Its agents receive little counterterrorism training, and few are interested in pursuing it. They're still operating with dangerously obsolete technology. And the only response from officials, current and retired, is, "we're making progress." Like this recent Washington Post report:
FBI officials said the bureau plans to build a multimillion-dollar state-of-the-art intelligence center at Quantico equipped with secure classrooms and classified computers. But it won't be ready for eight years.
If you're the loved one of someone dead in the next terrorist attack, is this what you want to hear from your government officials? "We're sorry for your loss, but take heart! We'll have our act together by 2015."
I'm sorry, Mr. Lormel. This isn't good enough.