Yet again, the strong arm of the federal government has come under attack from within. After the 9-11 Commission's report criticized the Federal Bureau of Investigation for continued failings in antiterrorism efforts arising from "gaps between some of the announced reforms and the reality of the field" (in the words of the report), another former agent has stepped forward to expand the litany of criticisms.
Mike German, a 16-year veteran of the bureau, joined a recent spate of whistle-blowers this week who have condemned the FBI's hostility to internal complaints and accused the bureau of dangerous mismanagement. In an Aug. 2 interview with the New York Times, German denounced his former employer as a "bureaucratic nightmare," citing its unwillingness to approve his undercover terrorist investigations as evidence of ongoing administrative problems. He also claimed that the FBI retaliated against him for raising these complaints, removing him from cases and effectively ending his career as an expert in domestic terror operations.
A master at infiltrating militant groups, Mike German boasted an impressive record of thwarted plots and attacks. As the Times reported, German successfully penetrated and undermined groups of white supremacists and anti-government militias in the '90s, preventing them from bombing a black church and various government buildings. He was even able to convince militia members to shackle themselves in a training exercise, facilitating their apprehension by authorities.
Despite his exemplary record, however, the bureau dragged its feet and refused to allow German to infiltrate a domestic terror group suspected of forming ties with a larger, international terrorist organization that was seeking U.S.-based allies in 2002. German's proposal was based on intelligence that indicated a meeting between the groups was planned in Tampa, Fla. But without management approval, his investigation foundered.
German's lawyer told the Times that certain FBI officials "backdated documents in the case, falsified evidence and falsely discredited witnesses in an apparent effort to justify their approach to the investigation." When German voiced his frustration to the FBI's higher authorities in Washington, he was taken off the case and received fewer and fewer opportunities for service. Soon, he told the Times, "The phone just stopped ringing," and his distinguished career was finished.
In the spring of this year, German wrote a letter to members of Congress and the 9-11 Commission articulating his complaints. As a result, the inspector general of the Justice Department began looking into German's claims, and the FBI is under scrutiny once again for what Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) told the Times was a disturbing habit of "retaliating against FBI agents and employees who point out problems or raise concerns."
German's case only adds to mounting evidence of an insidious trend. Within the last year, a number of disgruntled FBI agents citing unfair treatment have made their complaints public. Two weeks ago, a former FBI linguist named Sibel Edmonds appeared in the New York Times, criticizing the quality of intelligence translations at the bureau and claiming that officials refused to investigate her complaint of a colleague's conflict of interest. Edmonds also alleged that when she brought these complaints repeatedly before FBI officials, she was summarily dismissed.
A classified Justice Department report obtained by the Times confirmed Edmonds' account, concluding that her criticisms of FBI failings "were at least a contributing factor in why the FBI terminated her services."
As a translator of Turkish, Persian and Azerbaijani intelligence at the bureau, Edmonds repeatedly informed officials that FBI linguists were producing inadequate translations of important material. In an interview with the Times, Edmonds called the incomplete and inept work of translators "one of the major problems the intelligence community is facing." Edmonds also reported an act of espionage by a fellow linguist to her superiors, but witnessed no response and no follow-up investigation. (Her co-worker had prevented the translation of intelligence relating to a group with which she had undisclosed ties.)
Sibel Edmonds, like the other FBI whistleblowers, expressed frustration with the ineffectiveness of supposed reforms in the bureau since September 11, 2001. "Here we are almost three years after September 11," she told the Times, "and these problems have not been corrected."
The lack of progress is especially troubling given that the first prominent whistleblower, Minneapolis Special Agent Coleen Rowley, called the nation's attention to the proposed reforms and initiated a firestorm of debate on their efficacy. In 2002, the Wall Street Journal rejected the plan and demanded the resignation of FBI director Robert Mueller, while the New York Times described Mueller's plan as "too timid to get the job done."
The 9-11 Commission came to a similar conclusion. Despite more than doubling the number of linguists, intelligence analysts and agents assigned to terrorism since September 11 (according to the FBI website), the bureau is in need of more radical changes, said the Commission's report. In it they recommended the creation of a national intelligence director with comprehensive authority over the budgets and staff of the FBI, CIA and other intelligence agencies.
While President Bush has stated his intention to create a national intelligence czar and a counterterrorism center, his plan only partially fulfills their recommendations. The FBI and the other effected agencies would retain control over their budget and personnel, essentially leaving the current power structures in place. Sadly, it may take a few more whistleblowers to truly overhaul the flawed bureau.