Muslims inside FBI describe culture of suspicion and fear: ‘It is cancer’

Muslims inside FBI describe culture of suspicion and fear: ‘It is cancer’
Said ‘Sam’ Barodi was fired after he refused to cooperate with customs agents who he believed were targeting him because of his ethnicity and religion. His and other accounts paint a stark picture of the bureau in the era of Trump
By Spencer Ackerman in Washington
Mar 22 2017

Muslim special agents and intelligence analysts at the FBI are reporting a climate of fear inside the agency coinciding with the political ascendance of Donald Trump, the Guardian has learned.

FBI officials from Muslim-majority countries, a minority in a predominantly white bureau, say they are subject to an organizational culture of suspicion and hostility that leadership has done little to reform. At least one decorated intelligence analyst has been fired this year after a long ordeal which began with a routine foreign visit to see his family.

His case and others in which Muslim agents have reported a workplace culture that includes open-ended investigations predicated on their backgrounds were brought to the personal attention of the FBI’s director, James Comey, throughout 2016.

Muslim FBI officials are alarmed that their religion and national origin is sufficient for the bureau’s security division to treat them as a counterintelligence risk, a career-damaging obstacle that their native-born white FBI colleagues do not encounter.

They do not dispute a need to vet potential insider threats, but they bristle at what they consider selective enforcement and an inability for those caught in a process based on their heritage to escape suspicion.

Comey has publicly described the bureau’s overwhelming whiteness as a problem for the bureau. But in a communication acquired by the Guardian, the director nevertheless signaled that he sees merit in keeping foreign-born FBI officials under continuous scrutiny.

Comey wrote to a Muslim analyst on 20 October: “We need folks from your background and many others if we are to be effective. Of course, we must also discharge our duty to apply appropriate scrutiny when folks have significant foreign national contacts or contacts of concern with subject [sic] of criminal, counter-intelligence or counter-terrorism cases, by virtual of [sic] family friends or travel. I see that scrutiny applied in a whole lot of contexts, and none of it is based on religion, and it never should be.”

He added: “The challenge is figuring out what scrutiny is appropriate and how to talk to the employee about it.”

Muslims within the FBI say that their treatment is not only unfair but frays the bureau’s already shaky relationship with the US Muslim community. One recently ousted official believes his firing is a prelude to a wider “purge” of Muslims within the US national security apparatus.

“Before they can go after Muslims in general, they have to purge the US intelligence community,” the analyst, Said “Sam” Barodi, told the Guardian.

Barodi was fired on 1 February 2017 after a year-long investigation that stemmed from what he considered to be a strict adherence to the rules. He refused to confirm his status as a government employee after a US customs official who was following him in a foreign airport blurted it out in a public area near his departure gate.

What Barodi called, in an email to Comey, “the increasing hostility Middle Eastern/Muslim employees face in the FBI” had already been on the director’s radar.

On 18 May 2016, Comey held a meeting with representatives of minority groups at the FBI, including African Americans, Muslims, women, Asian Americans and LGBT employees. He heard what Barodi called the “struggle stories” of nine different Muslim employees who have faced what they consider discrimination.

Among those stories, which included Barodi’s, were accounts of white FBI officials who exhibited blatant Islamophobia, including those who blamed terrorism on Islamand suspected their Muslim colleagues of adherence to sharia law over the US constitution.

Comey was urged to set limits on a controversial program that keeps foreign-born officials under open-ended investigation by the counterintelligence-focused security division. FBI employees at the meeting declined cooperation for this story, and the FBI told the Guardian it could not comment on a director’s internal meeting.

“The FBI values diversity within our employees and is committed to fostering diversity and inclusion,” the FBI said in a statement to the Guardian.

“Diversity is an FBI core value and a priority for Director Comey. The FBI has internal processes available for employees to report incidents if they feel discriminated against based upon ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or gender.

But FBI veterans said they see few signs that Comey is addressing the issue.

A program under discussion at the meeting, known as post-adjudication risk management, or Parm, has been the subject of public and media scrutiny for years. It resembles what Barodi called a “one-way street”: a pathway for FBI employees of foreign backgrounds to come under suspicion and never escape it.