As an FBI surveillance employee, Ray Tahir spent the last decade tailing Muslims in counterterrorism cases.
Among the investigations whose surveillance Tahir led were those of the charity Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development in Texas and North Carolina’s Daniel Patrick Boyd, who with others was convicted of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists and conspiracy to commit murder, maiming, and kidnapping overseas.
Both FBI cases had their critics. The American Civil Liberties Union described the prosecution of Holy Land Foundation as “discriminatory enforcement of counterterrorism laws.” In the Boyd case, as in other informant-led FBI stings, there are questions about whether the men convicted would have done anything at all were it not for the FBI’s involvement.
As the FBI targeted Muslims in the United States following the 9/11 attacks, Tahir was among the front-line employees who made some of these cases possible.
Now, he alleges, he has become a target himself.
On May 11, 2012, Tahir was at FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., fighting to keep his $78,000-per-year job. A 26-year FBI veteran, Tahir was a member of the Mobile Surveillance Team, a special unit that monitors suspects of espionage and terrorism.
Tahir, who had been called for a hearing at the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility, was accused of making personal charges on his covert credit card, unauthorized gasoline purchases, and lack of candor. He had been placed on suspension pending the hearing.
The FBI employee had admitted to his supervisors that he made more than 200 personal charges during a four-year period, many of them for groceries at stores like Harris Teeter and Food Lion. He ran up a balance of $10,000, which he’d begun to pay back by the time he was called to headquarters; he blamed the charges on personal financial troubles.
But Tahir denied the unauthorized gasoline purchases and maintained that he had been candid while he was under investigation, though he did admit that he changed the address where the card’s statements were to be sent in order to hide his personal spending from supervisors. Nevertheless, Tahir thought that if he admitted to the credit card purchases, explained the circumstances, and apologized, he’d walk away with a suspension. He knew other FBI employees had received reprimands or suspensions for similar transgressions.
Five minutes into his hearing, Tahir was recounting his FBI career to the woman who was his judge and jury — Candice M. Will, the assistant director for the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility.
“What kind of name is Tahir?” she asked.
“It’s Turkish, ma’am.”
Tahir then continued to describe his career.
After Dallas, he moved to North Carolina, where he established another Mobile Surveillance Team unit and was responsible for surveillance of Boyd and his alleged co-conspirators.
During the hearing, Will expressed frustration that Tahir attempted to minimize, in her view, what he’d done. Tahir explained that he never submitted the personal charges for reimbursement from the government; those charges simply piled up on the card.
“The charges will exceed the amount you’re reimbursed when you’re putting personal charges on a government card,” Will said firmly. “The government’s not going to reimburse you for that.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Tahir said.
Tahir, who had been suspended once before for misusing his government credit card, became conciliatory later in the hearing.
“I understand I did something wrong. I wake up every day and pray to God that I get my job with the FBI back, because that’s all I know, ma’am,” Tahir told Will. “I’ve sat in a car for 26 years and done surveillance, and right now, to go out in the private sector and say, ‘Hey, can I get a job sitting in a car eight hours a day in the middle of the night for you?’ I’m not marketable.”
Will’s Office of Professional Responsibility ruled to terminate Tahir for all three charges of misconduct.
Tahir appealed the decision internally to the Disciplinary Review Board, which dropped his charge of unauthorized gasoline purchases but upheld his termination. He then took the case to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — a four-year process that took another turn Wednesday, as Tahir filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against the government in U.S. District Court in Raleigh, North Carolina.
The lawsuit alleges that he was discriminated against because of his national origin, and in the complaint, his lawyer, J. Denton Adams, references Will’s question about Tahir’s name during the Office of Professional Responsibility hearing.
Though Tahir may not be a model plaintiff to demonstrate discrimination at the FBI — as he openly admits to misusing his covert credit card — the FBI in recent years has faced discrimination claims from Muslim employees and those of Middle Eastern origin.
FBI Agent Gamal Abdel-Hafiz, now retired, spent nearly a year battling the FBI over his wrongful termination before finally being reinstated in 2004.
Another FBI agent, Bassem Youssef, filed a discrimination lawsuit in 2003, alleging that he was excluded from doing counterterrorism work and that the bureau had a “glass ceiling” for employees of Middle Eastern origin. Youssef charged that the FBI was promoting agents who lacked basic knowledge of Arabic and Middle Eastern culture into high-ranking counterterrorism positions.
Depositions taken in Youssef’s case did at least demonstrate ignorance of Islam among high-level FBI officials. Dale Watson, the bureau’s former counterterrorism chief, was asked under oath if he knew the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, for example. “Not technically, no,” Watson responded.
More recently, FBI employees with familial ties overseas alleged they are being scrutinized in an internal surveillance program intended to identify potential foreign spies.
A barrel-chested man who wears a baseball cap, Tahir has never identified much with his father’s Turkish roots. He considers himself all-American, the son of a bar owner from Pittsburgh whose Italian mother insisted he be raised Catholic.
As an FBI surveillance employee, he had two credit cards — an overt one and a covert one. The overt one, in his name, was to be used for training trips and whenever a cover wasn’t necessary. The rules and accounting governing that card were strict, in line with most federal employee credit cards. Tahir’s other card, in the name of his cover identity, Ray Mancini, was intended for use on surveillance assignments. Accountability for that card was much looser, and for a time, he got away with having statements for the card sent to an address where his supervisor could not review them.
With his daughters in college and bills piling up, Tahir said he used his covert card to float expenses for groceries and other everyday items. He expected to pay everything back, he said. Instead, over several years, he just got further behind.
“I’m not saying I didn’t do anything wrong. I misused the credit card. I’m not going to lie to you,” Tahir said in an interview with The Intercept in his modest apartment outside Raleigh. In the small dining room, boxes of documents from his case and his career with the FBI were stacked against the walls.
“In the FBI, if you show remorse, that’s the common thing,” Tahir explained. At the hearing, “My attorney was like, ‘Mr. Tahir was embarrassed. He was sorry,’ then you get off without a slap on the face. Not me.”
There are, in fact, examples of where the bureau has not terminated employees for credit card abuse. A log of FBI disciplinary actions obtained by Tahir and his lawyer through the Freedom of Information Act lists disciplinary cases similar to Tahir’s that resulted in reprimands.
In March 2010, a support supervisor received a letter of censure for charging $3,686.68 to his government card. Another employee in 2009 received a 60-day suspension for “repeated and prolonged” misuse of a government credit card, including using it to rent a car for a year. In 2006, an FBI agent received a 10-day suspension after making 39 personal charges to her government credit card, explaining that she was unaware “such personal use of a government credit card was against bureau regulations.” Another FBI agent in 2006 received a 15-day suspension after making more than $16,000 in personal purchases using his government credit card.
The FBI did not respond to requests for comment on Tahir’s case.
Tahir is aware of the irony of his claims. He spent his career surveilling Muslims in FBI counterterrorism cases, including the men behind the Holy Land Foundation, who were convicted of funneling money to Hamas. The case was controversial because the defendants were not accused of giving money directly to Hamas, but to charities that were allegedly controlled by the group.
The Holy Land Foundation defendants were given prison sentences ranging from 15 to 65 years in a landmark prosecution that had a chilling effect on Muslim charities.
Having spent years following the defendants as the FBI built a criminal case, Tahir is among the case’s critics as well. “I’m sure they found certain funds to Hamas. The FBI says they did,” Tahir said. “But I don’t know. I didn’t see them as hardcore terrorists.”
Now, Tahir claims he’s been victimized by the same bias that underpinned many of the cases he worked on as an FBI employee.
“I know what you might be thinking — that I’m playing the race card now because it’s convenient for me,” Tahir said. “I can understand why you might think that. But I have no other way to explain why I was fired for this and so many other FBI employees weren’t.”