New Global Role Puts FBI in Unsavory Company

By David A. Vise, Washington Post, Sunday 29 October 2000; page A01

When a terrorist blast killed 17 sailors aboard the USS Cole earlier this month, more than 100 FBI agents, laboratory experts and forensics specialists swarmed into Yemen. Among the FBI horde was Director Louis J. Freeh.

Freeh has been a familiar face overseas as he has transformed the bureau from a domestic crime-fighting corps targeted at organized crime and bank robbers into a global police agency with an anti-terrorism mission and a permanent presence in 44 nations.

We have the ability to work, literally, every place in the world, Freeh declared recently.

That expansion has sometimes put the FBI in unsavory company. As the bureau extends its crime-fighting network to places such as Yemen and Saudi Arabia, it confronts police tactics, including torture and a lack of due process, that would be barred in the United States. Such practices are sharply at odds with Freeh's oft-stated message about the FBI's need to respect human dignity and the tenets of democracy while fighting crime.

But last year Freeh made a secret deal with Saudi Prince Naif, brother of King Fahd, to return a Saudi Arabian bombing suspect being held in a federal prison in Atlanta to a jail in Riyadh where human rights groups say torture is routinely used. Freeh's pact permitted FBI agents to watch Hani Al-Sayegh's interrogation through a one-way mirror and submit questions to his Saudi inquisitors, officials familiar with the arrangement said.

Al-Sayegh was a suspect in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing that claimed the lives of 19 U.S. servicemen in Saudi Arabia. He had reneged on his pledge to cooperate with U.S. law enforcement authorities.

It is really a dirty little case, said Clarisa Bencomo, a researcher with Human Rights Watch who has monitored Al-Sayegh's case closely. To Freeh's FBI, she said, it seems that the information that may come out of this is more useful or worthwhile to them than the possibility of this guy being tortured or executed.

After a U.S. immigration judge officially ordered the Saudi suspect sent back, Freeh merely was ensuring that FBI agents would have access to whatever information the Saudis obtained, the officials said.

A friend of Al-Sayegh says that he has been tortured in prison, an allegation that Saudi officials deny. FBI officials say they have not seen any indication that Al-Sayegh has been tortured.

To suggest we are not very mindful of these concerns would be wrong, said FBI Assistant Director John Collingwood. We collect information and seek witnesses to present in U.S. courts subject to all the scrutiny and challenges inherent in that process.

But agents say privately that when entering a foreign culture to do police work they do not have control over how prisoners are treated and must tread lightly.

They do not ask, 'How did you question them?' They will just ask, 'Is it good information?'? said Otwin Marenin, a criminal justice professor at Washington State University who has studied the FBI's overseas practices. You learn how to live with that part even though you wouldn't do it yourself.

Yemeni interrogation techniques have been criticized by no less than the State Department, which found in its most recent human rights report that Yemen's security forces arbitrarily torture prisoners, sometimes fatally. But the Yemenis also have allowed FBI agents to submit questions. They have shared some of the results of their interrogations, but the FBI is pressing for even greater access, sources said.

U.S. law does not prohibit the bureau from developing close ties with foreign governments whose practices, laws and ethics differ dramatically from those in the United States. Freeh and others argue that the FBI's approach is necessary to save American lives.

With information from the Saudi government, we were able to thwart at least a couple of major incidents, said Bassem Youssef, who served as the FBI's top agent in Saudi Arabia until last summer.

FBI Academy in Budapest

From his early days as FBI director in 1993, Freeh had a vision of where he wanted to take the bureau: abroad. As a prosecutor in the vaunted Southern District of New York, Freeh concluded that he needed to go global to fight crime after pursuing a complex drug case that tracked back to Sicily.

A down-to-earth former FBI agent with a law degree from Fordham University and a federal judgeship on his re?sume?, the high-energy, 50-year-old Freeh likes to go jogging with new agents and gets so engrossed in the details of big cases that he is jokingly referred to as the presidentially appointed case agent when an international crime occurs.

Freeh is a frenetic globe-trotter good at networking. Many foreign police agency chiefs and some heads of state now view a visit with the FBI director as a compulsory stop when they are in Washington.

Freeh is quick to point out that the globalization of the bureau, whether it is in fighting terrorism, organized crime, money laundering or computer hacking, mirrors the globalization of crime. He argues passionately about the need for FBI agents on the ground in countries around the world, building cop-to-cop relationships. He wants his agents abroad, known in FBI parlance as Legats (short for legal attache?s), to field requests for information from FBI offices in the United States and to handle inquiries from their host countries.

FBI agents are posted today not only in London and Paris \u2013 once dismissed as the wine and cheese circuit \u2013 but also in Moscow, Riyadh, throughout Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia and South America. Under Freeh, the bureau has more than doubled its counterterrorism budget, to $547 million. And the FBI now runs a training academy for foreign police officers in Budapest.

This is the forward deployed part of the FBI, and it gives us a perimeter of defense and an ability to work directly in liaison with our [foreign] colleagues on matters of grave importance, said Freeh, whose 10-year term runs out in 2003.

If the agents abroad constitute the frontiers of the 21st century FBI, the nerve center remains in bureau headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue, where Freeh has built a lasting part of his legacy.

For years in the movies, the FBI has been depicted as being on the cutting edge of technology. But the bureau did not have the type of situation room that existed in Hollywood fiction.

It wasn't until 1998, at Freeh's insistence, that the Strategic Information and Operations Center (SIOC) was born, a sleek and secure 40,000-square-foot colony within the bureau composed of elite analysts, ultra-fast computers, global teleconferencing screens, top-secret phones and a bank of giant televised images with up-to-the minute news.

Its James Bond decor runs to stainless steel floorboards and digital time-zone clocks. In a crisis, Freeh and his closest aides become residents of SIOC, conferring with the White House, Pentagon, CIA, foreign governments and the FBI's network of field offices at home and abroad. SIOC can handle four international crises at once.

A few congressional critics consider the FBI's growth abroad a waste of taxpayers' money. Former House Appropriations Committee chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.) slowed the opening of FBI offices abroad in the 1990s by withholding funding.

I just did not feel, and still do not feel, the FBI, whose charter is to be our domestic and paramount federal law enforcement agency, has any business spreading themselves so thin all over the world, Livingston said. I would feel better off if they were doing their job better here.

FBI officials strongly disagree.

We have got to be very vigilant to make sure we protect the American people, said former FBI deputy director Robert M. Bryant. Anybody who went to Oklahoma City and saw that building, or went to Khobar Towers and saw those families, or saw Pan Am 103 on the ground in Lockerbie, Scotland, does not underestimate the ability of people . . . to do harm.

Some view the expansion as a power grab, particularly since the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Customs Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the State Department have had personnel abroad for years.

There is a lot of pushing and shoving to get into the game, Marenin said.

Freeh and other FBI officials draw a sharp distinction between their primary mission abroad \u2013 gathering evidence to make criminal cases \u2013 and the CIA's role, collecting intelligence for decision makers. The FBI also gathers intelligence with a goal of preventing terrorist acts. The agencies overlap in their pursuit of information about terrorism.

After World War II, so the apocryphal tale goes, FBI agents posted temporarily in South America drove the bureau's cars into the water rather than turn them over to the CIA. While that kind of fierce rivalry continued for decades, it is fading away. CIA Director George J. Tenet said the two agencies have never worked together better, and he praised the bureau's overseas growth.

Our relationship is seamless in many areas, Tenet said.

Friendly Governments

Despite the allegations of torture and the moral issues posed, FBI officials say they need relationships with the Saudis, Yemenis and others in the Middle East to fight terrorism effectively. The methods that worked so well for the FBI in its pursuit of gangsters Al Capone, John Dillinger and others are simple compared to the complex challenge of pursuing an international terrorist such as Osama bin Laden.

Bin Laden has proven virtually immune to the FBI's traditional methods of wiretapping and informants. Worse for the FBI, bin Laden is the head of an anti-Western radical Islamic movement that experts say would survive even if he were killed or captured.

Born in Saudi Arabia in 1957 into a wealthy family with a construction empire, bin Laden joined the mujahedeen resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The 10-year guerrilla war against Russia taught him that fanatical violence could triumph over even a superpower.

He and other Afghanistan alumni increasingly targeted the United States after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. An FBI investigation of bin Laden linked him to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York and the 1996 Khobar Towers attack.

Bin Laden gained worldwide notoriety with the Aug. 7, 1998, simultaneous bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. They were the deadliest terrorist acts of the past decade, killing hundreds and wounding thousands.

The FBI rushed to East Africa to assist in the investigation, which included more than 1,000 interviews. The FBI's investigation led to bin Laden's indictment in New York for masterminding the explosions and put him on the top of the FBI's Most Wanted list. Bin Laden also is a prime suspect in the recent USS Cole bombing in Yemen.

Inside SIOC, FBI analysts work in a special room 24-hours-a-day alongside a poster of bin Laden that proclaims him The Face of Evil. The room is off-limits to visitors.

The FBI's pursuit of bin Laden has led to the capture of nine of the 17 indicted suspects in the East Africa case, including one who has agreed to explain how bin Laden and his terrorist network move people and explosives around the world. But the FBI has not been able to apprehend bin Laden, who reportedly lives in Afghanistan under the protection of the ruling Taliban militia.

In large part, the FBI depends upon friendly foreign governments, not only to arrest and extradite fugitives but also to permit the bureau to operate on their soil. Afghanistan is not a friendly foreign government.

Freeh believes the FBI cannot bring the killers of Americans to justice without doing business with governments such as Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Jordan whose justice systems are antithetical to American principles.

Last December, Jordanian security forces, with help from the CIA and FBI, foiled a terrorist plot to kill American and Israeli tourists at two locations.

People say, 'I thought the CIA was overseas and FBI was in the U.S,' said Scott Jessee, an FBI agent based in Tel Aviv who took part in the Jordanian probe. It has become absolutely necessary to work these issues with the rest of the world. You cannot work them in a vacuum. You cannot work them alone. That is why we, the FBI, are overseas.

Monitoring Interrogation

After the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, Hani Al-Sayegh fled Saudi Arabia for Canada, as Saudi authorities began rounding up hundreds of members of the Shiite minority. He feared that he would end up beheaded, his lawyers said. Others said Al-Sayegh might have been a possible witness or suspect in the bombing.

As Canadian authorities were on the verge of returning him to Saudi Arabia, Al-Sayegh agreed to cooperate with the FBI, sources said. But after arriving in the United States and retaining Frank Carter, a criminal defense lawyer, Al-Sayegh refused to cooperate and asked for asylum.

Freeh then negotiated the secret deal permitting FBI agents to watch Al-Sayegh's interrogation in Saudi Arabia.

Senior Justice Department officials said arrangements were made to monitor Al-Sayegh's treatment, although they declined to offer details.

Ivan Yacub, an immigration lawyer who tried to prevent Al-Sayegh's return to Saudi Arabia, said Attorney General Janet Reno conferred with someone at the State Department, who received assurances from the Saudis that Al-Sayegh would not be tortured. But Yacub is skeptical.

The State Department report on Saudi Arabia talks about 200 people being incarcerated and tortured for the same attack. So why believe they wouldn't torture this guy? Yacub said.

Ali AlAhmed, a 33-year-old Saudi-born man who befriended Al-Sayegh in Canada, recently briefed State Department officials on alleged religious persecution in Saudi Arabia. AlAhmed has established an organization in Northern Virginia to publicize alleged abuses. He said Al-Sayegh has been subjected to taleeq, a painful torture where a person is hung from his handcuffs on a steel door, leaving the hands extremely swollen.

Saudi officials have denied requests from Amnesty International to visit Al-Sayegh in prison. They also said neither he nor anybody else has been tortured in jail, calling that a myth perpetuated by opponents of the Saudi government.

His wife, Hakima Al-Sayegh, is permitted to visit her husband roughly once a month. She speaks to him through a glass panel in the presence of guards. Recently, when asked whether her husband's hands appeared swollen, she said, There are no traces of swelling in his hands.

She knows that her telephone is monitored. During a recent telephone interview, Hakima said: Every time I go, I see his health is better. . .?. When he returned from the U.S., his glasses were really in bad shape. They have provided him with a new pair of glasses.