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 | The Guardian

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 Islam and 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.

An FBI employee’s foreign background is sufficient to open a Parm investigation, the Guardian has learned, if the employee is from one of 27 countries or territories, 15 of which are in the Middle East or are Muslim-majority. It includes the seven countries initially on Trump’s travel ban: Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Iran and Yemen.

Visiting family in those countries is considered prima facie suspicious under Parm, even if those relatives are not themselves suspected of posing a danger. The Guardian has learned that nearly 1,000 FBI officials are involved in various stages of Parm investigations, roughly 1 in 36 of all FBI employees.

Comey has publicly espoused diversity and said the FBI faced a “crisis” after recent hiring statistics revealed the bureau’s special agents to be 83% white. Several minority agents and analysts point to a compounded distorting effect emerging from such racial uniformity.

While the non-whites at the FBI are objects of suspicion, white staff have historically posed the demonstrated security risks. The biggest counterintelligence failure in FBI history came from Robert Hanssen, a white FBI agent who fed internal secrets to Russia for over 20 years.

“Robert Hanssen, no one knew he was spying [inside] the FBI. Yeah, because you’re not looking at your own color, you’re always looking at the wrong color,” said Gamal Abdel-Hafiz, who retired from the FBI in 2015 after 22 years as a special agent. A Muslim, he too was caught in Parm’s dragnets.

“Robert Hanssen was a white American who went to the same church as the director of the FBI, so everybody thought that he’s a fantastic guy.”

Abdel-Hafiz said the FBI initially “needed” Parm in the hectic months after 9/11. Realizing its shortfall in understanding the Middle East and South Asia, the FBI was rapidly hiring linguists and conducting background checks later. But once the urgency subsided, the program ultimately expanded its reach rather than contracting it. Soon, longtime translators were under examination; then the intelligence analysts; then the new special agents; then all agents.

With the expansion in Parm’s reach came an expansion in its goals.

“In 2012, I was with the bureau for 19 years, and they added me on that list,” Abdel-Hafiz said. He had intended to give a deposition, and believes the move was intended to scare him off.

An attorney for the FBI’s office of general counsel told Abdel-Hafiz that the bureau would “rather you not testify” in a federal case alleging discrimination against the bureau, Abdel-Hafiz said.

“That’s when they put me on the Parm program, as a punishment for testifying in court for someone who was suing the FBI,” he said.

Three days before Abdel-Hafiz’s scheduled deposition, he received a notice informing him of his Parm investigation. “Some people are never told they are included,” he said.

Ultimately, Abdel-Hafiz testified anyway.

Barodi and others do not see Parm cases emerging at random. “The only people we’ve seen affected by the Parm program are Middle Easterners,” he said.

The FBI, which declined comment on the number of FBI employees under Parm suspicion, said “religion is not a factor” in the program.

“The Post-Adjudication Risk Management (Parm) Program is a tool used to mitigate security concerns to ensure individuals may gain or maintain required eligibility for access to national security information. There are multiple factors that are reviewed in determining the need, if any, for a Parm. Reasons for a Parm may include concerns that an individual may be vulnerable or susceptible to coercion due to certain foreign contacts or financial situations.”

An airport confrontation – and the fallout

Over the past 18 months, as Donald Trump went from fringe candidate to GOP presidential nominee to president of the United States, the climate within the FBI became less hospitable to Muslims, according to current and former FBI officials. An FBI agent told the Guardian in 2016 that sympathy for Trump’s positions had turned the bureau into “Trumpland”.

Barodi will not say what he did for the FBI beyond specifying that he worked on cybersecurity issues. He spent 2016 caught in a web of suspicion after an incident in Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. It ultimately cost him his career.

In January 2016, Barodi visited his family in Paris, Brussels and Morocco. The FBI was aware of his travel plans; in keeping with internal regulations, Barodi uploaded his itinerary to an electronic tracking system in August 2015. But the FBI was not the only agency to learn of them.

On 30 January 2016, a plainclothes officer with the Department of Homeland Security approached Barodi in the de Gaulle terminal and asked if he was boarding a specific flight. Barodi dodged the stranger, who persisted, to the point of addressing Barodi by his last name and saying, in earshot of any travelers nearby, that he knew Barodi worked for the FBI.

Barodi, in keeping with his counterintelligence training, confirmed nothing. He initially thought the officer, who briefly produced a government credential, was a foreign agent attempting to recruit him as a spy. The officer, persisting, said he knew Barodi had come to de Gaulle from Morocco and wanted to ask him a few questions. Barodi refused and said the officer was racially profiling him.

Fatefully, Barodi took three photos on his cellphone of the officer. Barodi asked if the officer thought he lacked constitutional protections while overseas, and received an answer: yes. Before Barodi boarded his flight, the officer put his hand to Barodi’s chest and demanded “professional courtesy”. Barodi demanded the officer’s name and badge number, receiving no more than a four-digit number.

While standing in line to board his flight, Barodi texted his wife, Julia, and informed her that he was likely to be detained. He asked her to alert the FBI. On the plane, Barodi remembers, he was full of questions. How did the DHS officer know his travel schedule? How did he know Barodi worked for the FBI? Why did he publicly identify Barodi as an FBI agent? Barodi was certain only of two things: he was going to be detained when he attempted to clear customs at Washington’s Dulles airport; and it would mark the end of his FBI career.

By the time he touched down, Barodi also texted his supervisor, George, what was happening: “I was harassed by a HSA [Homeland Security agent] when I tried to board in Paris. He knew who I was and that I worked for the FBI. Do you know anything about this?” (The FBI has asked the Guardian to withhold the supervisor’s identity.)

As he predicted, Barodi spent the next several hours in secondary screening. Customs agents informed him that they were “aware of an incident” in Paris and wanted to discuss it. When Barodi asked if the man he encountered in Paris was indeed an employee of DHS, he said he received an evasive answer about the department having a “limited number of personnel in a limited number of locations”.

Without acknowledging the agent at de Gaulle, the customs officials knew Barodi had taken photos of his airport interlocutor and wanted to know if he would delete them. Barodi said he took them for his protection and would delete them after a debriefing for his boss. It was a delicate reference: Barodi feared that if he revealed his FBI employment, he might later find himself accused of trying to curry favor with customs. Barodi declined to unlock his phone out of fear that customs would search through it, but gave the agents his locked phone upon request.

As the hours wore on, it became harder for Barodi to know what he was supposed to have done wrong. When he exercised his right not to answer questions, customs informed him that they considered his reluctance to be suspicious. They told him they wanted the pictures on his phone. And they told Barodi that they wanted to ask him about his travel to Morocco. But the more Barodi tried to figure out what the specific issue was, the more confused he became.

“I did not answer probing questions about what I was doing in Morocco as I felt I was being framed as a CT [counterterrorism] subject on my ethnicity, national origin and religious background and my knowledge of CBPA [Customs and Border Patrol agents] harassment of Americans of the Muslim faith or those of Arab descent. I told CBPA I had no ill intention with the photos as those were for my safety and intended for FBI security,” Barodi later explained in a sworn statement for the FBI.

According to Barodi, after about two and a half hours, customs involved the FBI, sending special agent Mark Hess and a customs official, Gregory Derricote, who was deputized as a member of the FBI-led joint terrorism taskforce. All of a sudden, it seemed to Barodi, an FBI intelligence analyst was under suspicion for a terrorism-related issue. Hess began to reference the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, weeks before Barodi set foot in France, and in San Bernardino, California, where he had not even been.

“This is bullshit. I’m not a terrorist,” Barodi said.

Derricote said they had to ask because of “the environment and the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino”. Barodi was incensed, all the while noting those attacks had nothing to do with any concern, cited by customs, about the Morocco leg of his trip.

Hess shifted the issue to the pictures Barodi had of the agent. The only way to resolve the issue so that Barodi could leave, Hess told him, was to “delete the pictures”. Derricote gave Barodi his phone. Barodi turned it on, unlocked it and deleted the photos while they watched.

Customs went through Barodi’s luggage and handed him back his bags and wallet. He was free to go after four hours. “You made yourself look suspicious,” a customs officer responsible for Dulles airport, Lionel Gruillon, told him.

Barodi tried to reach George, his FBI supervisor, several times. As he drove home with his wife from Dulles, George texted back: “We’ll talk tomorrow.” When Barodi reached him the next day, Sunday, George told him they would deal with it at the Washington field office on Monday morning.

It turned out that George had already been in contact with customs before Barodi’s plane touched down. According to an email Barodi later obtained, George told a supervisory agent that George had spoken with a customs watch commander at de Gaulle, John Whittaker, who claimed Barodi was “identified by his travel pattern, which included visits to several countries of counterterrorism interest” – all of which George had known for months that Barodi would visit.

George wrote: “I apologized to Mr Whittaker on behalf of IA [intelligence analyst] Barodi, myself, and the FBI and that however the CBP officer had approached him, IA Barodi did not display the professional attitude one expects of an FBI employee.” Now, it seemed, the issue was Barodi’s sense of interagency decorum.

At work on Monday, George’s supervisor informed Barodi that she was displeased with his behavior at de Gaulle. “Higher-ups” in the field office, the supervisor said, would be looking into the matter, and told Barodi to prepare a statement. She was referring him to the office of professional responsibility for disciplinary action. (The FBI asked the Guardian to withhold the identity of the supervisor.)

There was no discussion of Barodi’s decision to protect his FBI affiliation in a foreign airport, let alone his concern that he was profiled. By 23 February, Barodi met with security agents at the field office who also rejected the profiling claim out of hand; it might have been “Morocco day”, one said, implying that Barodi had the misfortune of flying on a day when CBP was checking travelers from Morocco. The agents showed Barodi copies of his Moroccan bank statement – which he kept, with the FBI’s knowledge, to pay his Moroccan parents’ mortgage – and his old Moroccan ID, asking him why he never renounced his Moroccan citizenship. No one at the FBI had ever instructed him to, he said, but now, alarmed at what seemed to be an escalating situation, he reiterated his willingness to do so.

It made little difference. Once their interview was done, the security agents revoked Barodi’s access to secret compartmentalized information – effectively, his security clearance was busted down to a level below what he needed to do his job. Barodi couldn’t reenter his work space. In front of his colleagues, the security agents boxed up his work materials and the next day moved him to a different floor of the building. Barodi, a cybersecurity analyst, was reassigned to a healthcare fraud squad.

Barodi was humiliated. Appraising how he saw his status, he said: “You look like a terrorist. Your credibility is shot.”

He was left in a holding pattern for months. An attempt to seek redress through the equal opportunity office was rejected. He wrote to his senator, Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine, without result. On 7 September, the office of professional responsibility wrote to Barodi to inform him that it was recommending him for dismissal: he had, in “two busy international airports … refused to cooperate” with customs officials, and had displayed a “lack of candor” by refusing to answer questions. The FBI even referred to Barodi’s letter with Kaine and accused Barodi of overstating his case to the senator: “Your allegations against this [customs] agent in [Paris] became even more amplified, as you asserted that you had been ‘stalked,’ ‘harassed’ and ‘assaulted.’”

Weeks later, on 30 September, Barodi received what would be his final performance review. “IA Barodi received one Outstanding ratings, four Excellent ratings, and two Successful ratings for an overall rating of Excellent,” it reads. Both George and George’s supervisor signed it.

On 13 October, Barodi wrote to Comey about “the increasing hostility Middle Eastern/Muslim employees face in the FBI … I wish to stress that none of us would have been subject of an OPR/Security investigation had we not possessed the religious/ethnic/national origin backgrounds we have. We feel the FBI resents needing us and we are not set up to succeed or even be.”

Comey responded on 20 October. “Let’s imagine we have an employee whose family lives in Russia and who travels to Russia to visit them every year. Do you agree it makes sense to have some additional layer of scrutiny in that situation? I suspect you do. To me, the issue is how we do it and how respectfully and fully we answer the employee’s questions about why we are scrutinizing them,” the director wrote, thanking Barodi “for your service to the FBI and the nation”.

Whether the director knew it or not, the email exchange was not his first time encountering Barodi. Comey signed an “on-the-spot award” for Barodi on 1 July 2015 for aiding a counterintelligence investigation. It is one of several commendations Barodi had earned at the FBI; another, in 2011, was for helping the bureau understand the Arab spring uprisings.

During the early weeks of the Trump administration, career civil servants have come under fire as disloyal holdovers from Barack Obama’s administration. A Muslim nonpolitical appointee on the national security council, Rumana Ahmed, quit in protest of Trump’s Muslim ban. Others have been pushed out. The new administration abruptly fired the senior career leadership at the Department of State in late January. Intelligence officials at the Department of Homeland Security were castigated by DHS’s own press shop over an analysis that contradicted the Muslim ban. Trump himself has pointed a finger, over Twitter, at FBI and NSA officials for leaking material highlighting ties between senior Trump aides and Russia.

Abdel-Hafiz does not believe the FBI is purging Muslims as a deliberate strategy. For him, the bureau leadership is blind to the fears of non-white officials, particularly Muslims, who cannot seem to escape internal suspicion.

“Comey, in my opinion, he’s a politician. He wants to ride the wave and look good. That was my opinion then, and what he did with Hillary, the Hillary investigation, sealed the deal. He just cares about how he looks,” said Abdel-Hafiz, now a private investigator in Houston.

He continued: “They harass the Muslims within the bureau, and then they beg for help within the Muslim community. How hypocritical is this? At the same time they put me in the Parm program, they were asking me to recruit people for them.”

On 1 February, Barodi showed up to the Manassas, Virginia, satellite location of the FBI Washington field office. It was his last day. His personal effects from work were in a backpack. His work materials had been boxed up. Around 3pm on a crisp sunny day, a security officer badged his car out of the complex’s garage and wished Barodi luck.

Barodi is now pursuing a wrongful termination claim within the FBI bureaucracy, and a potential lawsuit challenging the discrimination he faced. Accordingly, the FBI declined comment on Barodi’s case.

“I would not advise anyone to work for the FBI under these circumstances. Fuck, stay away. It is not worth it. It is cancer,” Barodi said.

“Muslim employees in federal law enforcement,” he continued, “we are the target.”