By Senior producer, NBC News Investigative Unit
NBC News
updated 2/16/2006 7:54:49 PM ET 2006-02-17T00:54:49

The Senate Judiciary Committee is calling for an investigation into whether the FBI retaliated against its highest-ranking Arabic-speaking agent, a new letter reveals. The public airing of the private workplace squabble is a potential embarrassment for the FBI, which faced criticism after 9/11 for its failure to hire many Arab-speaking agents and for failing to better understand the radical Islamic community inside the United States.

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Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and the committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., asked the Justice Department's inspector general to investigate whether the FBI's treatment of agent Bassem Youssef is "another instance in a pattern of retaliatory actions against whistleblowers," according to a letter released Thursday by Sens. Specter, Leahy and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.

The FBI would not address the allegations, saying only "it would be inappropriate to make any comment," since Youssef’s complaints are part of an ongoing discrimination lawsuit against the FBI. "It is important to add that Director Mueller has stated the FBI will not tolerate any form of retribution against any employees and that the Bureau strives to treat every person fairly and professionally," an FBI spokesman added.

The letter from the three senators states that Youssef, a veteran counterterrorism agent, believed that the FBI moved him to a back-bench position after 9/11. After Youssef complained to his FBI managers and then to Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., that his skills were not being fully utilized, the letter states, Youssef faced apparent retaliation as a whistleblower. The situation further deteriorated, the senators add, when FBI Director Robert Mueller was called into a meeting with Youssef at Wolf’s office to discuss the Arab-American agent's complaints. The FBI then allegedly underutilized "his years of operational counterterrorism experience, his fluency in Arabic and his experience working in the Middle East," the letter says.

The letter singles out a May 2005 deposition by FBI Counterterrorism Division Deputy Assistant Director John Lewis as an example of the "clear hostility" FBI officials allegedly displayed toward Youssef. Lewis characterized Youssef’s meeting with Wolf and Mueller as "absolutely outrageous" and "an "ambush" — and indicated that he was "still shocked" at the time of his deposition. When asked at the deposition whether he still harbored a negative feeling about the matter, Lewis said: "Holy mackerel. I mean, absolutely."

The senators say that they are concerned about the treatment of Youssef "given that he spoke with the Director of the FBI in the presence of a Member of Congress." FBI agents are protected under federal law when they communicate with members of Congress, the letter states, and "retaliation for such disclosures sends a chilling message to all Employees."

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