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FBI depositions: Lack of terrorism knowledge?

Excerpts of depositions given by top ranking FBI officials in response to a civil suit filed by Bassem Youssef, the bureau’s highest-ranking Arab-American agent, who alleges he was discriminated against after 9/11.

Below are excerpts of depositions given by top-ranking FBI officials in response to a civil suit. Bassem Youssef, the bureau’s highest-ranking Arab-American agent, filed the suit against the bureau alleging discrimination, after he says it refused to use him directly in counterterrorism investigations. The lawyer cited below is Stephen Kohn, Youssef’s lawyer. The excerpts have been edited.

Robert S. Mueller, FBI director
April 26, 2005

LAWYER: And you're familiar with the blind sheik, Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman?


LAWYER: And are you aware of his relationship with bin Laden?

MUELLER: I'm actually not. Let me answer if I could. Not with any specificity inasmuch as that prosecution and those events happened in New York way before I became director.

LAWYER: Were you aware that the blind sheik was Mr. Bin Laden's spiritual leader?

MUELLER: Again, I am not certain of the role played between the blind sheik and bin Laden.

LAWYER: Were you aware that Mr. [FBI counterterrorism official Gary] Bald was of the opinion that a strong background in international terrorism was not essential for persons selected into the SES [FBI leadership ranks] in counterterrorism?

MUELLER: I wasn't specifically aware of that, but I do not disagree with that.

LAWYER: You agree with that?

MUELLER: I mean I do not disagree with what he said.

LAWYER: Is a strong background in international terrorism very important for someone to be selected into a position of the SES in the FBI's counterterrorism division?

MUELLER: It's helpful, not essential.

Gary Bald, former executive assistant director for the National Security Branch of the FBI before retiring in 2006
March 14, 2005

LAWYER: Isn't it true that a strong background in international terrorism is essential for someone to be selected into the SES for counterterrorism? Do you know?

BALD: I disagree. The reason is because you need leadership. You don't need subject-matter expertise. The subject-matter expertise is helpful, but it is not a prerequisite. It is certainly not what I look for in selecting an official for a position in a counterterrorism position.

LAWYER: Isn't it true that in order to supervise effectively counterterrorism, you must have subject matter expertise in counterterrorism?

BALD: No, and I would broaden it beyond counterterrorism. You do not have to have subject-matter expertise in order to supervise the area you are supervising. You have to have leadership ability.

Dale Watson, first assistant director in charge of counterterrorism and then executive assistant director until his retirement in 2002
December 8, 2004

LAWYER: And in terms of knowledge of Middle East culture ... I'm just talking about knowledge that you get, say, from more than one college course on the Middle East, you know, if you went to college and took an undergraduate course on Islam or you took an undergraduate course on, you know, Middle East affairs or something like that. Beyond say just one undergraduate or university course. Do you think that level of knowledge of Middle Eastern culture and history would be something that would be helpful for someone at a GS-15 or above level in the counterterrorism division of the FBI?

WATSON: Yes, I guess it would be somewhat helpful.


WATSON: Just being able to understand, you know, probably the targets of the folks that came out of the 9/11 deal. It certainly would not have aided in any criminal investigations. A crime is a crime.

LAWYER: What do you mean by that, a crime is a crime?

WATSON: Crime's committed in the United States. It really — you know, I don't think it's much benefit if you understand about the Ku Klux Klan — I don't necessarily think you have to know everything about the Ku Klux Klan to investigate a church bombing or a church fire that they conducted because the subjects are subjects. And so, that — that sort of approach.

LAWYER: So in terms of being a better supervisor, do you think that type of knowledge was important for post-9/11?

WATSON: I think it would be helpful to a limited degree.

LAWYER: What steps did the FBI take after 9/11 to ensure that managers at the GS-15 or above level hired into counterterrorism had a background in experience and knowledge of Middle Eastern culture?

WATSON: None that I'm aware of.

LAWYER: 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.

John Lewis, deputy assistant director for counterterrorism; promoted to special agent in charge in 2002.
May 17, 2005

LAWYER: Do FBI supervisors who help infiltrate a group of white-supremacist bank robbers have the same skill set as FBI officials who infiltrate al-Qaida?

LEWIS: I think the answer to that is yes and let me try and explain this. This is one of the most difficult parts of our business. It's one of the most difficult parts of the agency's business is recruiting my assets. The people that are best at this ordinarily are those that have been in the business for a very long time and have through the course of their years of work become experts of sorts in interacting and dealing with other people. It doesn't make any difference whether somebody's from the Middle East or a white supremacist or from Australia. ... Some of our most successful agents are those that can push their way through that and convince these other people based on a deep understanding of all the things that make that person tick. It is not enough to have a solid Russian background. It is not enough to have spent five or six years in an undercover assignment where every day you're just working white supremacist so you think you know them.  It's not enough to do that.

LAWYER: Do you know the difference between a Shiite and Sunni Muslim?      

LEWIS: You know, generally.  Not very well.

LAWYER: Are you aware of any relationship between the people who did the first World Trade Center bombing and the 9/11 attack?

LEWIS: I'm aware of no immediate relationship other than all emanates out of the Middle East, al-Qaida linkage, I believe. Not something I've studied recently that I'm conversant with.

--Compiled by Sarah Abruzzese, NBC News Investigative Unit