Alice Speri, The Intercept:
Eighty-three percent of the FBI’s 13,500 special agents are white – and only 4.4. percent are black, even though African-Americans make up 12 percent of the U.S. population. That’s down from about 6.5 percent just a decade ago, a retired, high-ranking FBI official involved in the agency’s diversity efforts told The Intercept. In the mid-90s, after a class-action discrimination lawsuit brought by black FBI agents, black officers made up 5.3 percent of the force.
And that’s just the race problem within the FBI. It’s hard to diversify an agency that many still associate with the systemic surveillance, infiltration, and repression of civil rights activists in the past – and which maintains ample discretion today to target individuals and groups it deems suspicious based on criteria that all too often reflect their race or religion. The bureau’s efforts at reform, so far, have been mostly aimed at recruiting a more diverse force. But people of color who do sign up to join its ranks often find themselves isolated as they come face to face with racism and discrimination within the bureau, as well as with the bureau’s often racist and discriminatory policing.
Albury, a former agent with the FBI’s Minneapolis field office, pleaded guilty on Tuesday to two federal charges of violating the Espionage Act. In a statement, his attorneys said that Albury takes “full responsibility” for his actions – and suggested that he was motivated by his personal experience with racism within the bureau, as well as by the bias with which he saw the bureau operate in the communities where he served.
“It has long been a critique of the FBI that it consists of and reflects a predominantly white male culture, which, as a result, has often treated minority communities with suspicion and disrespect. These criticisms are especially resonant in the terrorism context,” the statement reads. “For Terry, the only African-American field agent in the Minneapolis office, the problem of racism both within the FBI and in its interactions with minority communities was especially pronounced. The situation became even more acute for him when, having previously served a tour for the FBI in Iraq, he was assigned to the counter-terrorism squad, and was required first-hand to implement FBI investigation directives that profiled and intimidated minority communities in Minnesota and other locations in which Terry served.”
“Witnessing all this, and, as an African-American being subjected to it himself directly in some instances, profoundly affected Terry professionally and personally,” the statement continues. “The tensions and conflicts within him became unbearable, and he acted.”
Members of Minneapolis’s large Somali community – a major target of the FBI’s efforts there – told The Intercept that the documents Albury was accused of leaking helped shed light on the profiling and harassment many in that community regularly experience at the hands of the FBI, and said that they were grateful for the former agent’s courage in making them public.
…critics argue that focusing on recruitment has done little to change the agency’s biases, and that the FBI’s lack of diversity is symptomatic of a broader failure by the bureau to change the ways in which it views the world it operates in – alienating those who see things differently as much as those who look different.
“It has actually gotten worse every year since 9/11, and I don’t think that’s an accident,” Michael German, a former FBI agent and a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice, told The Intercept. “The FBI has given a lot of lip service, yet it hasn’t responded in a way that would actually change things, and part of it is because there is this national security imperative that tends to view even people within the FBI with suspicion, particularly if they stand out.”
“National security policies that the public should know about demonstrate racial and ethnic bias that make it hard for people to work there who are not conformists,” German added. “The problem is that the FBI is a very conformist organization. So anybody who publicly criticizes the FBI is ostracized from the wider FBI fraternity – and I say fraternity because it is still almost all male, as well as almost all white.” (Only 20 percent of the FBI’s special agents are women, according to the bureau’s figures.)
Said Barodi, a Moroccan-American former intelligence analyst who spent nearly a decade at the FBI’s headquarters and Washington field office, said that diversity recruitment efforts worked on him – even though, as a Muslim, he was “fully aware” of the FBI’s scrutiny of his community before he joined. “[The human resource division] does a really good job of trying to entice and attract diverse kinds of employees,” Barodi told The Intercept. “But once you get in, it’s a completely different story.”
Barodi was hired as the bureau found itself scrambling to find Arabic-speaking staff. But while the FBI sought out Muslim and foreign-born analysts like him, it never fully trusted them or treated them equally, Barodi charged. According to The Guardian, Barodi was fired in February 2017 for refusing to cooperate with airport customs agents who he believes were targeting him because of his background. Barodi told The Intercept that he appealed his dismissal with the FBI’s HR division and said he was told in July that he would be reinstated. After much waiting, he was recently notified that his reinstatement was blocked.
“I wanted to serve my country. I wanted to fight terrorism and fight U.S. enemies and do my patriotic duty, but little by little, I discovered that I’m the target inside,” Barodi told The Intercept. “People like me are the target.”
Internal redress channels have failed before. Thomas Drake, a former employee of the NSA, tried all formal channels available to him when he became convinced of wrongdoing at the agency. Drake told his bosses, the NSA’s inspector general, the Defense Department’s inspector general, and congressional intelligence committees. Then, as a last resort, he turned to a reporter from the Baltimore Sun. He ended up with 10 federal charges, including five under the Espionage Act. All charges were eventually dropped, and Drake pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of exceeding the authorized use of a government computer.
Drake’s case made clear that resorting to formal channels was no guarantee one’s concern would be heard – or that one wouldn’t be retaliated against.
German said that the documents Albury was accused of leaking should have never been withheld from the public in the first place. “Most of them were FBI policy documents, and if we live in a democracy, we can’t have secret government policies,” he told The Intercept. “Clearly, having released them hasn’t put our national survival at peril. All it has done is provide the public with more information about how the FBI conducts its business, and clearly there was evidence of abuse, particularly in a lot of the documents about targeting immigrants, targeting journalists.”
“These things are threats to our democracy, not things that are done to protect our democracy,” he added.