Session: “Inside the FBI: A Whistleblower Speaks Out” – Sat. Jan. 12, 8:00-10:00 a.m.
At the ALA Washington Office update session yesterday, attendees had expected to hear a presentation by Bassem Youssef, who is the Unit Chief of the FBI Counterterrorism Division’s Communications Analysis Unit and the highest ranking Arab-American agent. Mr. Youssef’s unit is in charge of the National Security Letter program. In 2002 he brought to light abuses of these letters, particularly the “exigent circumstances” exception, which states that in cases of emergency warrantless searches could be performed without going through the NSL authorization process. Mr. Youssef found that this exception was being systematically applied to situations which were clearly not emergencies. He was expected to speak about this, as well as ways in which the FBI does not adequately use expertise in Middle East cultures and languages.
However, just last weekend, Mr. Youssef received a 12-page directive from his superiors instructing him that he could not give any prepared presentation or speech. However, he was still allowed to give “spontaneous answers” to questions, as long as he stayed within the directive’s guidelines.
Mr. Youssef’s lawyer, Stephen Kohn, was also at the update session in order assist him in this, as well as add his own experiences and expertise. Mr. Kohn is the president of the National Whistleblower Center, and has written several books about whistleblowing.
Mr. Youssef took questions from the audience, making clear that he was answering as “Bassem Youssef, U.S. citizen” and not representing the FBI. For several of the questions, he listened to whispered advice from Mr. Kohn before answering. Topics included a very brief overview of the process for authorizing National Security Letters, discussion about his work as a liasion to the Saudi Arabian government, and his investigation into the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, for which he won the Director of Central Intelligence Award. Regarding some topics, such as the investigations resulting from his whistleblowing, he was unable to say much at all. In these cases, Mr. Kohn often filled in some of the gaps by relating the experiences from his own perspective. Mr. Kohn’s frustration with some of the actions (and inaction) of the FBI was clear. As the moderator of the session said at one point, “Mr. Youssef’s courage is equaled by Mr. Kohn’s passion.” Mr. Kohn expressed his belief that ignorance and arrogance within FBI administration and policies is endangering the country, as well citizens’ civil liberties. He gave many examples of this ignorance, such as an FBI statement asserting that knowledge of the Middle East, its culture and languages, and expertise in counterrorism are not necessary qualifications for leading a Counterrorism Unit.
Mr. Youssef told the audience that it is important for the public to be aware of these problems and to speak out against them. This, he said, is why he came to speak to us (the first time he has spoken in a public forum) even though he was warned by his superiors that he may be disciplined, depending on what he says.
Mr. Youssef emphasized that the FBI is made up of many good agents who care deeply about protecting America. However, bureaucracy and lack of expertise are getting in the way of that goal. He did, however, express his belief that by continually doing the right thing, it is possible for people to eventually change any situation.
In closing remarks, the moderator stated that the Washington Office plans to file a Freedom of Information Act request for the FBI’s speaking guidelines for agents. He also exhorted librarians to remain active advocates and speak out about these issues.