FBI Cautions Whistleblower against Giving ALA Midwinter Talk

FBI Cautions Whistleblower against Giving ALA Midwinter Talk

The attorney who represents FBI Supervisory Special Agent Bassem Youssef, chief of the Counterterrorism Division’s Communications Analysis Unit, advised the American Library Association’s Washington Office January 10 that Youssef was heeding the Bureau’s warning and would not give a scheduled speech January 12 at ALA’s Midwinter Meeting at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia. Instead, Youssef would appear to answer “acceptable questions presented by members of the audience,” attorney Stephen M. Kohn wrote ALA Washington Office Director Emily Sheketoff. Kohn said he would accompany Youssef to the Midwinter session and stand by during the Q&A between conference-goers and his client, who is the chief of the FBI unit responsible for administering both the National Security Letter program and the top-secret warrantless-search “special program.”

Kohn, of the law firm Kohn, Kohn and Colapinto in Washington, D.C., stated that the FBI had granted Youssef permission on October 29 to speak at the convention. However, following a December 20 ALA press release that detailed the program, the FBI e-mailed Youssef January 3 and “expressed its displeasure at the proposed content of his presentation, and the viewpoints for which he would raise at the conference.” Kohn added that the Bureau “explicitly took exception” to the idea that Youssef “is expected to discuss a number of critical failures within the FBI’s Counterterrorism program, which undermine basic constitutional rights of American citizens and threaten the effectiveness of America’s counterterrorism efforts.”

The FBI e-mail then issued a clear warning to Youssef against making such a presentation, noted Kohn, who explained that the agency also forwarded to Youssef a multi-page document setting forth various rules concerning pre-publication clearance of any potential speech and forbidding him to show the rules to anyone outside the agency. “The FBI does not want the general public to know the contents of the censorship provisions it unconstitutionally demands that its agents follow,” Kohn wrote, advising that Youssef would not be able to make the planned presentation.

Kohn also warned ALA that during the program, “I may have to object to questions and/or potential answers provided by Mr. Youssef if I believe that a response to a question could result in Mr. Youssef violating FBI rules. Also, as you are aware, any answers provided by Mr. Youssef will be his own, and do not represent the opinions or positions of the FBI.”

Youssef is the highest-ranking Arab-American FBI agent/counterterrorism manager fluent in Arabic and is considered one of the agency’s most experienced and knowledgeable Middle Eastern counterterrorism experts. In 2002, he blew the whistle to the director of the FBI and Congress that discriminatory practices within the Bureau were undermining the ability of the agency to legally and effectively combat Middle Eastern terrorism. His case resulted in widespread media attention to the fact that top FBI counterterrorism lacked subject matter expertise in terrorism-related matters.

“It is unfortunate that restrictions are placed on the ability of FBI employees to inform the American people of nonclassified problems within a very powerful and important government agency,” Kohn wrote, “problems which result in blatant discrimination against ethnic minorities, violations of individual constitutional rights, and which ultimately harm the ability of the United States to properly defend itself against real terrorist threats.”

Read the full text of the letter to ALA at the Washington Office’s District Dispatch blog.

Posted on January 10, 2008, modified on January 11, 2008.