DEITZ: Who needs homeland security?



Ian Deitz

The most perplexing question raised by the terrorist attacks of 9/11 is: Why were they not prevented?

What lapse in attention or effort allowed such a simple yet devastating strike to occur in the heart of the most advanced and powerful nation in history? Placement of blame did not center on any individual person or agency and rightly so. However, the FBI did receive a good deal of criticism for its failure to take heed of the potential for domestic terrorism.

Since then it similarly has not been known for positive press coverage on its efforts in the war on terror. A good example is its controversial use of electronic surveillance powers granted by the Patriot Act.

Here is one more example. About a month ago, a man named Bassem Youssef was scheduled to give a lecture at the American Library Association in Philadelphia. Youssef, an Egyptian native with an illustrious career as an undercover agent who infiltrated Islamist groups in the Middle East, holds a management position in the FBI. One would think his experience would make him a valuable asset to the agency, but FBI leadership is not so sure. In fact, when he complained to upper management about the dearth of Arabic speakers and Middle East experts within the counterterrorism division, the FBI retaliated against Youssef by relegating him to an administrative position. Consequently, he is no longer able to contribute to substantive policy decisions.

These events have understandably led Youssef to attempt to expose the problems he has come across. During his lecture at the ALA, he intended to speak about the deficiencies within the counterterrorism division. Just prior to the event, though, his superiors informed him of strict rules he was to follow in giving the speech, at the risk of further reprisals. Furthermore, he was forbidden from disclosing the specifics of these rules to anyone. Consequently, he was unable to give his prepared speech and instead had to answer questions from the audience.

Considering the urgency of the terrorist threat inside the United States, FBI management’s attitude toward Youssef is troubling. Youssef’s case demonstrates that the FBI is still territorial and defensive – the features of federal agencies which were most criticized after 9/11 and are perhaps the primary deterrent to effective terrorism prevention within our country. How is the FBI to coordinate with other agencies if it is unwilling to accept criticism from its own managers?

Another worrisome aspect of the retaliation against Youssef is the implied rejection of his claim that the counterterrorism division should incorporate leaders with intimate knowledge of foreign terrorist organizations. In fact, senior FBI officials have stated in sworn testimony to Youssef’s attorneys that subject matter expertise should not be a prerequisite for positions in the CT division. These CT officials also demonstrated a profound lack of knowledge about Middle Eastern affairs – one of them even stated that he does not know the difference between the Sunni and Shi’a sects of Islam.

Unfortunately, the prevailing mindset in the FBI seems to be that substantive expertise can be replaced by high-tech solutions. These solutions echo the “perfect defense” strategy – the idea that we can construct a technological shield of sorts to guard our borders and prevent attacks. For example, about two weeks ago the FBI awarded a $1 billion contract to Lockheed Martin to compile a digital database of people’s physical characteristics in order to better identify criminals and terrorists. Similar ideas that have been floated around are the missile defense shield and border fence, to name a few.

While these ideas are well intentioned, by undertaking them, we risk consuming resources toward overambitious and unrealistic goals.

The 9/11 attacks were decidedly low-tech, and it certainly wouldn’t have required a vast array of face-scanning airport security cameras to stop them. Recruiting more personnel with experience and expertise – people like Bassem Youssef – is a more practical and short-term solution.

Apart from the injustice of retaliatory demotion, Youssef’s case shows that those leading the counterterrorism efforts inside our own borders have got it wrong. Who on earth would claim that you don’t need to know how to do your job in order to do the job? A circus trainer, maybe, but not the FBI.


Ian Deitz is a senior political science major from Gettysburg, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected].