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Whistleblower retaliation suspected

- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 26, 2008

A senior Republican senator and two Democratic congressmen want the FBI to investigate suspected retaliation against an agent who told a House subcommittee that a third of the leadership positions in an elite FBI division that tracks al Qaeda terrorists are vacant.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee; Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee; and Rep. Robert C. Scott of Virginia told FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III in a letter that the bureau "wasted no time in taking action against" Agent Bassem Youssef following his May 21 testimony before the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime, terrorism and homeland security.

Mr. Scott, who serves as subcommittee chairman, said the prospect that the FBI took retaliatory action against Mr. Youssef for being a whistleblower "is disturbing, but the prospects that it did so as a response to the 'whistleblower' testifying before Congress is more than disturbing - if true, it is criminal."

"Youssef courageously provided information to the subcommittee about deficiencies in the FBI´s counterterrorism programs, despite his awareness of the FBI´s tendency to retaliate against those who speak out about problems in the FBI," the lawmakers said in the letter to Mr. Mueller.

"Just two days after the subcommittee´s hearing, we understand that Agent Youssef was informed by his supervisor that unknown accusers had claimed he violated various FBI rules and regulations," they said. "In particular, one anonymous claim was that he traveled to London on official business without having obtained the required 'country clearance.'"

The lawmakers said given the timing, "the allegations appear to be motivated by a desire to harass, intimidate and retaliate against" the agent for providing information to Congress.

"The FBI has a history of retaliation against its agents. So, unfortunately, these actions don´t surprise me," Mr. Grassley said in a statement.

Mr. Conyers said he was "extremely concerned" about the accusations, saying it was "crucial we find out what happened as soon as possible."

Mr. Youssef, chief of the communications analysis unit of the FBI's counterterrorism division, testified that according to an internal bureau document, efforts were under way at the FBI to canvass for "volunteers" to fill what the agency said was a "critical" need in its counterterrorism efforts.

He said because of significant staffing shortages and a lack of experienced managers, the FBI could not properly defend the U.S. against "another catastrophic and direct attack by Middle Eastern terrorists." He also said the bureau's International Terrorism Operations Sections (ITOS) - which include those that track al Qaeda terrorists - was "inexcusably understaffed."

FBI spokesman Bill Carter on Wednesday said the bureau had received the lawmakers' letter and that it was being reviewed for an "appropriate response to the members of Congress."

Last month, FBI Assistant Director of Public Affairs John Miller, in responding to Mr. Youssef's accusations, said the bureau has made "great and steady strides to build a domestically focused national security organization" and shifted its priorities to make prevention of another terrorist attack its top concern.

Mr. Miller also noted that several years had passed without a successful terrorist attack by al Qaeda or its affiliates on U.S. soil and that by combining the FBI's intelligence-gathering capabilities with its law-enforcement experience and authority, as well as its state and local partners, the bureau disrupted several terrorist plots across the country. He said the bureau also helped to disrupt more plots globally.

Mr. Youssef, the bureau's highest-ranking Arab-American agent and a FBI whistleblower who is suing the bureau for discrimination, told the subcommittee that critical supervisory personnel within ITOS are at a staffing level of 62 percent, which has forced the FBI to recruit supervisors who lack the necessary background and expertise.

Mr. Miller has said the bureau was "addressing staffing concerns, career path issues and how we can better leverage a strategic, intelligence-based view across all of our investigative programs" and that it has worked hard to "staff positions at FBI headquarters while at the same time being careful not to do so at the expense of the field offices."