The curious case of the twice-fired FBI analyst

Bowdich would not be interviewed about the second and final dismissal, and the FBI declined to comment on any aspect of the case.

Today, Barodi, 36, supports his family by working for a private security company. He’s launched yet another complaint about how Bowdich and the bureau handled his appeal, but has little confidence he’ll ever work for the FBI again.

He speaks of his career — aspects of which were first reported by The Guardian — with a withering candor.

“We are a target,” Barodi said of himself and other Muslim FBI employees. “We are either suspects or snitches, that’s our station in society. We’re not allowed to be patriotic or serve our country. All that stuff about family and we’re a big family, blah, blah. No, I was not family. I was the enemy within.”

Born in Morocco, Said Barodi came to the U.S. in January 2001 and settled in Washington, D.C.

He worked odd jobs at first, he said, and considered joining the military until 9/11 happened and friends warned him he’d be harassed and mistrusted by his fellow soldiers.

Instead, Barodi enrolled in community college, primarily studying English with the goal of applying to a four-year school.

In 2006, he became a U.S. citizen, and soon after became a student at George Mason University, studying global affairs, with an emphasis on the Middle East and North Africa. He spoke French and multiple dialects of Arabic, and was attracted to the idea of working in counter-terrorism. While at George Mason, Barodi began working as a contractor with the FBI, both in the U.S. and overseas.

In 2009, he formally applied to the bureau as an analyst — typically these employees examine raw data and make sense of it for agents and policy makers.

“They needed a linguist,” he said, “so I applied.”

After 9/11, the FBI had launched a push to recruit Muslim employees. The bureau needed Arabic speakers and help penetrating Islamic terrorist networks. Officials pointed to Ali Soufan, a Lebanese-American agent who investigated some of the most high-profile terror cases and sought to persuade other Muslims in America they could have careers fighting such threats.

It’s not clear how much the recruitment effort achieved. Asked today how many FBI employees are Muslim, the bureau refused to say.

Periodically, though, there have been incidents suggesting that, numbers aside, the bureau has struggled to adjust its culture to reflect its stated desire to be more welcoming.

In 2012, for example, Barodi said he learned of Islamophobic training materials being used to train agents. He filed an Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission complaint. The bureau responded that Barodi didn’t have standing in the matter because he wasn’t present in the training sessions.

After the media caught wind of the training materials, the complaint was reopened and a subsequent internal investigation helped lead to a number of training materials being removed from use.

Barodi said his actions, despite their apparent legitimacy, only made him feel more alienated in the agency.

That wasn’t reflected in his annual performance reviews, however. The two prior to his firing rated his work as excellent.

During the second half of his time at the bureau, Barodi worked as a “targeting analyst” in the Washington, D.C., field office. He would recruit sources outside the bureau who might be of assistance in answering the bureau’s often broad intelligence questions on a given issue. Barodi often sought out information on cybersecurity, focusing on everything from hacking to malware to other forms of technological warfare. 

He said he enjoyed helping the bureau try to deal with ever more sophisticated cyberattacks. At least twice, his work earned him cash awards from his superiors. A 2015 award cited him for having done work “beyond his duties without complaint and with professionalism.”

Even after the issue over the training materials, Barodi said he was proud of the FBI and doing work that protected his fellow Americans.

“I was able to use my skills and my knowledge to serve my country,” Barodi said, “and I loved it.”

On 30 January 2016, Barodi was returning from a trip abroad, having visited three different countries, including his native Morocco. He’d informed the bureau of his trip and its destinations ahead of time, records show.

But at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, awaiting a connecting flight to Virginia, Barodi was stopped by a plainclothes Department of Homeland Security agent. He was asked about the countries he had traveled to.  

Barodi said he was offended by the questioning and refused to cooperate. He would later tell the FBI he was also concerned the officer might have been a foreign operative. At minimum, he thought he’d been targeted because of his race and religion. Barodi said the Homeland Security agent loudly identified Barodi as an FBI employee in the crowded airport and then poked him in the chest. Barodi found the exchange so unusual that he took pictures of the agent to keep a record of the encounter.

When Barodi landed in the U.S., he was met by more federal agents and held for questioning at the Virginia airport. He was asked to delete the photos of the Paris agent, and authorities made a copy of Barodi’s written account of the incident, which he penned while in flight. Calls were made to his superiors and FBI agents arrived at the airport to interview Barodi. He eventually deleted the photos of the Paris agent and was allowed to leave.

After Barodi learned the bureau was pursuing his dismissal over the airport incidents, he wrote directly to Comey, then still the director of the FBI, about the plight of Muslim agents and analysts as well as his own treatment.

“We feel the FBI resents needing us,” he said of Muslim agents and analysts, “and we are not set up to succeed.”

Comey wrote back.

“We need folks from your background and many others if we are to be effective,” he said. “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 of criminal, counter-intelligence, or counter-terrorism cases, by virtue of 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. The challenge is figuring out what scrutiny is appropriate and how to talk to the employee about it.”

The bureau eventually charged Barodi with unprofessional conduct as well as two counts of lack of candor for not being fully truthful about his trip. In both instances, the bureau claimed, Barodi had named only two of the three places he’d visited, omitting Morocco.

Allegations of misconduct can be investigated by a range of FBI personnel — from people in the FBI’s Inspection Division to staff in the field to others at headquarters in Virginia. The FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility then determines whether the allegations are substantiated and decides discipline. Punishment more severe than a 14-day suspension can be appealed to the Discipline Review Board.

The Office of Professional Responsibility concluded Barodi had “refused to cooperate and acted unprofessionally” in his dealings with other federal official and failed “to comply with necessary and critical security procedures,” it said in a January 2017 letter. The office also asserted Barodi had shown “little remorse and no genuine acceptance of responsibility.”

“You are therefore unsuitable for continued FBI employment,” the letter stated.

Barodi’s firing came almost exactly a year after the incident at de Gaulle.

Windows into the FBI’s internal disciplinary process are rare. A decade ago, in 2009, a report from the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General found that high-ranking and low-ranking officials at the FBI were treated differently in disciplinary matters.  The report examined three years of discipline data from the bureau and found that 83 percent of the time that a senior ranking official was disciplined, they wound up seeing the punishment reduced.  Only 18 percent of lower-ranking officials at the bureau saw their punishments reduced at any point during the process.

ProPublica asked the inspector general’s office if it had ever produced a report examining whether there were any disparities in FBI discipline based on race. The office said it could not locate any such material. 

Barodi said he filed an appeal almost purely because it was standard protocol. He said he had no expectation anything would change.

Barodi’s appeal, in the end, proved to be quite substantial. He hired lawyers and sent the review board a 16-page rebuttal of the findings behind his firing. It noted the FBI had failed to provide “a single word of sworn testimony from anybody who had witnessed the alleged misconduct.” That included, the lawyer said, the Homeland Security agent in Paris.

The appeal said the typical punishment for off-duty misconduct — often involving alcohol or “lascivious” behavior — was a five-day suspension. And it said the claim Barodi had tried to hide his stop in Morocco was absurd, given the fact he was born there, had traveled there numerous times with the bureau’s knowledge, and had pre-cleared this trip with his superiors.

Still, Barodi had such little hope he’d be reinstated that, with the appeal still pending, he spoke to The Guardian for an article that criticized the FBI’s treatment of Muslims employees, calling it a “cancer” within the agency.

Barodi and his wife had had their first child in the months after his firing and he struggled to line up work, finding nothing that could match his $87,000 salary.

Then the review board’s letter arrived. Barodi was stunned to learn that his firing had been vacated.

“I didn’t believe for one second they were going to come back and say, ‘Oh we made a mistake. Yes, you were right, you can come back to work,’” Barodi said.

The board had examined his career, noting his top-notch evaluations and the bonuses he’d won. The claims of unprofessional conduct were unfounded, the board found, deeming Bardodi’s suspicions concerning the Homeland Security agent reasonable.

The board did find that he had not been fully candid in describing his travel to the customs agent and took note of the bureau’s claim Barodi had “deep anger” issues. That’s a classic FBI tactic to sully the name and reputations of minority employees, Barodi countered.

“It’s the easiest go-to move to start stacking the decks against you,” he said. “It’s also to evoke this fear of the blacks or the browns. They try to conjure these images of the angry, menacing, threatening Arab who’s walking in our midst. They know what type of dog whistle language to go to.”

Ultimately, the review board said the appropriate punishment was a 20-day suspension after which Barodi should be free to resume his career.

Barodi had only to pass a security check — similar to ones he’d passed on multiple occasions in his nearly 10 years with the bureau.

About a week after receiving the letter, Barodi began asking about the status of the security check. He was told by his field office that it was still underway. Barodi said these types of inquiries should only take a few days or weeks, at the most. He’d passed one before he was hired, and another during his tenure.

But three more weeks passed. He was told his file had been sent to “the security division’s management.”

Week after week, he followed up and the bureau responded that the review was still underway. He could not fathom what was being looked at. He’d had no incidents of note since his firing.

In October 2017, three months after he’d been seemingly welcomed back to the bureau, he got an email: “I am sorry for the delays HQ’s action has created and the difficulty resulting for you and your family.”

The week of Thanksgiving 2017, he received a call from his field office telling him that his case was no longer with the security division, but now was at the executive level of the bureau’s headquarters.

In December, Barodi sent the following email to both his lawyer and his former field office: “Today marks the passing of 5 months since FBI [review board] vacated my dismissal. Yet here I am still unemployed and kept in the dark about why the FBI is delaying my return to duty.”

A month later, Barodi was told that headquarters personnel were going to speak with then Deputy Director Andrew McCabe about his case. McCabe’s own position was precarious — the week before, media reports emerged that President Donald Trump had been pressuring Attorney General Jeff Session to get FBI Director Christopher Wray to fire McCabe. Soon there were reports that McCabe was taking “terminal leave” and did not intend to return to the bureau.

As he waited, Barodi was still hustling to find work, in case the bureau somehow undid his reinstatement. He had a shot at a position with the Rappahannock Regional Jail in Stafford County, Virginia, but when he alerted officials there that his case with the bureau wasn’t resolved, he said, the jail stopped the employment process immediately.

“I went to my car and right then and there I called my POC [point of contact] and told him this is my reality,” Barodi said. “I can’t get my FBI job back, I can’t get any decent paying job anywhere.”

Finality came in late February, when Barodi received the letter from Bowdich reversing the appeals board’s decision.

In explaining his decision, Bowdich did little more than repeat the claims that Barodi had initially been charged with. There was no evidence Bowdich had done any additional investigating. Bowdich wrote that Barodi’s actions had damaged the bureau’s reputation and relationship with a federal law enforcement partner.

Barodi’s lawyer, Katie Watson, works for a Washington, D.C., firm that handles many FBI employment cases. She told ProPublica she’d never seen a review board decision reversed and that more senior members of her firm had only seen it happen once or twice.

“Typically, the [review board] is the last step,” she said. 

Once more, Barodi has filed a complaint with the EEOC.

Today, Barodi has found work as a security guard manager for a Department of Defense contractor. He said his re-hiring and re-firing has only deepened his worry about the future of men and women who look like him in FBI.

Looking back at the episode that ended his FBI career, he said he doesn’t believe he should have handled the airport encounters differently.

“Airports are chokepoints to harass and humiliate us,” he said.  “I’ve had it with my friends having to go through this, I’ve had it with my co-workers having to go through this.”

Topher Sanders is a reporter at ProPublica covering race, inequality and the justice system.This article is published courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty