Retired agent says bureau’s Obama-era leaders ignored privacy, cost warnings, may have retained program for ‘political espionage’
The FBI agent who ran the bureau’s warrantless spying program said Wednesday he warned ex-Director James Comey and his deputy, Andrew McCabe that the program was a useless waste of taxpayer money that needlessly infringed Americans’ civil liberties but his bosses refused to take action.
Retired Special Agent Bassem Youssef ran the FBI’s Communications Analysis Unit from late 2004 until his retirement in late 2014. He told Just the News he fears the deeply flawed program, which was started in response to the Sept. 11 attacks, was allowed to keep going to give Americans a false sense of security in the war on terror and possibly to enable inappropriate spying, such as that which targeted President Trump’s 2016 campaign.
“I have no doubt, or very little doubt, that it was used for political spying or political espionage,” Youssef said during a lengthy interview for the John Solomon Reports podcast.
Youssef confirmed that the FBI performed an audit of the highly classified program (also known as the NSA program because it searched call records captured by the National Security Agency) after Edward Snowden leaked its existence.
The audit showed that while the program had generated two moderate leads for counterterrorism cases, it had not helped thwart dozens of terrorism attacks as officials had claimed, despite costing tens of millions of dollars per year.
In fact, the program was generating large numbers of “false negatives and positives,” Youssef said.
The audit, he added, also showed “there was collateral damage in terms of civil liberties” of Americans whose phone records were unnecessarily searched or who were falsely identified as connected to terrorism.
Youssef said he discussed the concerns with McCabe both when McCabe served as assistant director for counterterrorism and then when he was promoted to acting executive assistant director, the No. 3 job in the bureau. But his efforts to pause the program and reform it so it could work better, cost less, and infringe less on American privacy fell on deaf ears, he said.
When McCabe was acting executive assistant director, “I explained to him again, the model that I was looking to establish and to let him know that we were not really getting good support from this program, and that maybe we should reconsider this whole thing, unless we can re-tweak it,” Youssef recalled. “And I remember, he was so adamant about, we need this program. We’re keeping it as this, even though we’re not getting anything out of it.”
Asked why the FBI would keep a program that was not producing any terrorism leads, Youssef said: “It was a way to say, you know, it’s an insurance policy to show that we’re doing everything we can, when in fact it wasn’t giving us anything of what we hoped it would get.”
FBI and DOJ declined comment on Wednesday. Lawyers for Comey and McCabe also did not respond to requests for comment.
Youssef said that in September 2014, shortly before he retired, he was invited to brief Comey privately about his concerns in the director’s office.
“It was a very lengthy briefing,” Youssef recalled. “He was very interactive. He asked very good questions. And after I explained everything to him, his only concern was not that we should shut it down, or that we should change it so that we can protect civil liberties … his concern was, do you have a problem or concerns with the statutory authority?”
Youssef recalls explaining that while he had no reservations about the legal authority of the surveillance, which had to be approved by FISA court judges, he had serious concerns about both the “waste of human resources” inherent in the “hundreds of thousands of agent hours in the field” lost to the labor-intensive program and the threat the program posed to civil liberties.
“Unless we change it to a different model,” Youssef recalls telling Comey, “we’re going to continue to get many false positives and false negatives. And you can imagine with a false positive, we would be knocking on people’s doors who have nothing to do with any kind of terrorism act.”
Youssef said he had “no doubt whatsoever” that McCabe and Comey understood the severity of the problems. “I gave them the full monty brief,” he said. “I explained everything to them. They were fully briefed on the program.”
Youssef first publicly raised concerns about the warrantless spying program during a 2018 interview with me at The Hill. But his comments Wednesday went much further, prompted by the release of a White House civil liberties board report that showed the same problems Youssef flagged in 2014 to Comey and McCabe persisted for nearly five more years.
Youssef was one of the FBI’s early counterterrorism success stories, working on major cases like the World Trade Center bombing and the Khobar Tower bombings and singled out for praise by former Director Louis Freeh. But after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, he was sidelined in a Human Resources dispute with bosses, sued the FBI, and eventually was restored as a supervisor running the CAU unit that oversaw the warrantless spying program.
The New York Times reported Wednesday that even after the Obama-era audit flagged serious concerns, the FBI kept operating the program until President Trump shut it down in 2019. Between 2015 and 2019 the program only generated two more leads, the newspaper reported, citing the White House report.
“That’s probably what grieves me more than anything,” Youssef said. “Here we have a program that was not doing what it should. It was leaked. And the Obama administration very quickly appointed a privacy and civil liberties board to look into this. And we were mandated to give, we called it the options paper. And so my option was really the one that would give us the best intelligence at the lowest cost while minimizing the false positive and false negative intelligence. And so it makes perfect sense that this would be adopted. And yet, the director basically didn’t do anything with it.”
Youssef said he has developed deep concerns since his retirement that the NSA program may have been abused, like the FISA warrants, during the Russia collusion probe of the Trump campaign that included a highly flawed Foreign Intelligence Surveillance warrant against Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
“There is no doubt in my mind now, looking at the backdrop and the information that has come up since 2016 in the media, that the abuses were rampant,” he said, “and not just for the FISA process, the FISA program, but for other programs that were used to spy on the Trump campaign. That to me is almost the obvious conclusion of what I’ve seen.
There is “a high probability that that program was used to handpick selected targeted numbers for purposes other than fighting terrorism,” Youssef believes. “It’s kind of a mirror image of the FISA abuses on Carter Page. As you know, it came out much later that the FISA process was for counterintelligence and counterterrorism purposes only. That was not what they used it for on Carter Page. And so it’s sort of the same type of situation with this other program. I have no doubt, or very little doubt that it was used for political spying or political espionage.”.