Monday marked the beginning of the federal trial against former Milwaukee Alderman Michael McGee Jr. Regardless of your opinion about McGee and the charges against him, several issues have come to light in recent weeks. One of the emerging questions centers around U.S. Attorney Steve Biskupic’s use of an Arabic speaking agent in the investigation of McGee. Was the threat so high in this case that it warranted the use of an Arabic-speaking FBI agent?
The Washington Post reported some five years after the September 11th attacks that the FBI still only had a pathetic 33 agents that had even ‘some proficiency’ in Arabic. They identified ‘some’ proficiency from speaking it fluently to only knowing a handful of Arabic words. The 33 agents determined to have some proficiency even included those that scored a zero on a standard proficiency test. Obviously that means that the number of FBI agents that were able to actually carry on a conversation in Arabic was likely much lower than 33 agents. This has been a troubling trend not only in the FBI but also in the CIA, the military and other important departments of our government.
Given the massive shortage of agents that speak Arabic in the FBI, was it really a wise use of that very rare resource to investigate an alderman? The charges against McGee are serious but do they really rise to such a level that warrant taking away from investigating possible terrorist threats? Based on what we know from recent reports, the return investment on tying up this very specialized agent was not much. It does not appear that the state will be using these recordings and likewise it doesn’t seem to be a major part of the U.S. Attorney’s case against McGee. So why did U.S. Attorney Biskupic request an Arabic speaking agent to get involved in this case when they are in dangerously short supply?
U.S. Attorney Biskupic’s decision to bring in a very rare Arabic speaking agent for a case involving an alderman is curious. Unfortunately for U.S. Attorney Biskupic, it would not be the first time that people have questioned his judgment about a case that his office has prosecuted. It was this same U.S. Attorney that saw Wisconsin political operatives complaining to Karl Rove because he didn’t prosecute more voter fraud cases even though he found that there was no widespread problem. Later his name was on the same list as other U.S. Attorneys, some of whom lost their jobs. After these events unfolded, Biskupic brought what some felt was a political case against long-time civil servant Georgia Thompson. Many felt that the case was an attempt to hurt the Democratic Governor during a heated election. After the 2006 election, Ms. Thompson’s conviction was totally thrown out. The appellate judges remarked that the case that Biskupic brought against her was ‘beyond weak.’
If former Alderman Michael McGee Jr. is proven to have committed the crimes for which he has been charged then he deserves the punishment that is due him. That, however, does not give the U.S. Attorney’s office carte blanche in the investigation or prosecution of him. Biskupic should not only be mindful of the rights of the accused, but should also be cautious of how he uses the scarce resources to which he has access. Possible misuse of such a limited resource, such as Arabic speaking agents, does not only smack of overkill but also feeds into the perception that the case may not have been prosecuted fairly. Further, Biskupic’s choice to tie up important national resources for a case involving an alderman appears to have been unnecessary and totally distracting from their primary role, investigating terrorist threats.