Published on Sunday, July 20, 2003 by the New York Times
F.B.I. Is Accused of Bias by Arab-American Agent
by David Johnston
The F.B.I.'s highest-ranking Arab-American agent has filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the bureau, charging that he was kept out of the investigation of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings because of his ancestry.
The agent, Bassem Youssef, filed the lawsuit on Friday in Federal District Court for the District of Columbia. Mr. Youssef, a naturalized American citizen born in Egypt, said in his complaint that "no other non-Arab F.B.I. employee with similar background and experience was willfully blocked from working 9/11-related matters."
Some of the actions against him had broader implications, Mr. Youssef said in his complaint, undermining important counterterrorism investigations prior to the attacks. "The F.B.I. permitted racism to interfere with national security," Mr. Youssef said in an earlier filing with the Federal Bureau of Investigation's equal opportunity office.
In one incident two months before the hijackings, F.B.I. agents in Miami lost a prospective informant on the Qaeda terrorist network because of what Mr. Youssef said was an internal argument about his involvement in interviews with the source. Whatever information might have been learned was lost, he said.
Stephen M. Kohn, Mr. Youssef's lawyer, who has represented F.B.I. whistle-blowers, said Mr. Youssef had risked his career by filing the lawsuit. "Mr. Youssef has placed his career in jeopardy in order to ensure that the F.B.I. can properly protect the public against another terrorist attack," Mr. Kohn said. "F.B.I. discrimination against Middle Easterners is not only un-American, it also undermines the war on terrorism." He said Mr. Youssef could not discuss the case.
A spokesman for the bureau said he could not discuss the charges. "We have received a complaint and the matter is being investigated," the spokesman said. "Some of the information in the complaint is classified and therefore it may take longer to resolve."
In his complaint, Mr. Youssef said a "glass ceiling" existed at the bureau that blocked the advancement of Arab-Americans. The charges come at a time when the F.B.I. is trying to hire Arab-American agents, analysts and translators to help the bureau reshape itself into a counterterrorism agency to respond to international threats.
The bureau is also seeking more agents with experience in the Middle East to expand its law enforcement operations in Arabic-speaking countries. At the same time, senior F.B.I. officials have sought to portray efforts like the thousands of interviews with Iraqis in the United States during the Iraq war as being conducted with discretion and sensitivity.
Mr. Youssef said in his complaint that he had been held back from senior positions even though he was the bureau's only polygraph examiner qualified to conduct examinations in Arabic and had an intimate understanding of Arab culture, politics and diplomacy, knowledge that was rare among F.B.I. agents.
In the mid-1990's, he said, he had received "exceptional" performance evaluations when he worked as the bureau's first representative, or legal attaché, in Saudi Arabia and had been credited by Louis J. Freeh, the former director of the F.B.I., as helping to foster a working relationship between the bureau and the Mabahith, the secretive Saudi security service, in the investigation of the 1996 bombings at the Khobar Towers apartments in Dhahran that killed 19 United States servicemen.
Some agents said in private interviews that Mr. Youssef could be abrasive, but they added that he was hard-working.
In his post in Riyadh, he said in the complaint, he helped the bureau obtain access to six people held in the Khobar Towers case after American officials complained that the Saudis were not cooperating. He also resolved minor disputes, like one that arose when an F.B.I. official was found to have brought liquor into Saudi Arabia, an Islamic country that forbids alcohol.
But when Mr. Youssef returned to F.B.I. headquarters in 2000, according to his complaint, he was excluded from work on counterterrorism investigations, which after the 9/11 attacks became highly sought-after assignments that often led to promotions to the senior executive ranks.
Mr. Youssef is currently assigned at F.B.I. headquarters as the supervisor of a unit that has been translating hundreds of thousands of documents seized from Osama bin Laden's training camps and elsewhere in Afghanistan — a job that Mr. Youssef said undervalued his knowledge and experience as a Middle East counterterrorism expert.
At one point, he was assigned to work alongside employees who had once reported to his subordinates. In his complaint, he said that the F.B.I. had never promoted an American citizen born in an Arabic country in the Middle East to a senior position. At times, he said, agents referred to Arabs using racial slurs.
Mr. Youssef's complaints have circulated in the F.B.I. for many months. Robert S. Mueller III, the bureau's director, was first told of them in June 2002 when he met privately with Mr. Youssef at the office of Representative Frank R. Wolf, Republican of Virginia. After the meeting, Mr. Mueller said he would assign subordinates to review the case.
Mr. Mueller is scheduled to testify on Wednesday to the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Mr. Youssef's complaints are likely to be addressed. Last week, Justice Department officials blocked a request to interview Mr. Youssef made by two senior members of the committee, Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, and Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont.
Asked about the case, Mr. Grassley said: "The F.B.I. can't afford to have discrimination within its ranks against Arab-Americans or anyone else. It's not only wrong, but it hurts the war on terror. If these allegations are true, the F.B.I. has a major problem that must be addressed immediately."
Mr. Leahy said: "We need to make the F.B.I. as effective and as agile and as responsive as it can be, especially for the war on terrorism. We have found that whistle-blowers have been among the most potent catalysts for reform. Mr. Youssef in particular has special skills and a unique background, and we need to know what he has to say."
Among Mr. Youssef's charges is that the bureau's bias against him undercut terrorism investigations. In July 2001, he said in his complaint, an agent in the bureau's Miami office telephoned Mr. Youssef for help interviewing an unidentified Arabic-speaking "walk-in," who approached the bureau with what Mr. Youssef said was "significant information" about Mr. bin Laden.
Mr. Youssef said his fluency in Arabic and experience in terrorism qualified him uniquely to conduct the interview. But, he said, when agents in the bin Laden unit at F.B.I. headquarters learned that he was to be involved, they intervened to exclude him.
Mr. Youssef said that without anyone qualified to conduct the interview in Arabic, "the walk-in stopped cooperating with the F.B.I. and walked out of the field office. Whatever information this walk-in had was lost."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company