A congressional probe into the Fort Hood massacre is now directed at the top of the Federal Bureau of Investigation as questions brew over whether a senior FBI official misled lawmakers in testimony before a House Appropriations subcommittee.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science responsible for funding the FBI, had asked Director Robert Mueller to come testify at an Aug. 1 hearing on the Webster Commission report into the November 2009 shootings, but the bureau sent Mark Giuliano, the FBI’s executive assistant director for national security.
The trial of Army Major Nidal Hasan, accused of killing 13 at Fort Hood, is expected to begin next week. Proceedings have been delayed by the question of whether or not the court can force him to shave his beard for trial.
In a lengthy letter to Mueller yesterday, Wolf raised concerns that Giuliano “made comments to the committee that I believe were misleading or incorrect with regard to the nature of findings in the Webster Commission report and the FBI’s understanding of Anwar Aulaqi at various points over the last decade.”
In all, Wolf singled out six troubling statements from the FBI official as “potentially misleading, uninformed or incomplete.”
At the hearing, Wolf grilled Giuliano on whether political correctness led to agents being gun-shy about aggressively pursing Hasan’s links with Islamic extremists.
“The report did not find political correctness was in any way, shape, or form responsible for his lack of going forward with the interview,” Giuliano responded.
But the Webster Commission report, requisitioned by the FBI and led by former FBI Director William H. Webster, says on two pages that the San Diego officers who reported suspicions about Hasan were told by officials in Washington that “political sensitivities” were a factor in the office’s decision not to investigate Hasan further.
“I repeatedly asked Mr. Giuiliano to cite the section of the report that found that there was no political correctness ‘in any way, shape, or form,’ but he refused. When I confronted him about misleading the committee, he admitted that I was correct on that point,” Wolf wrote in the letter to Mueller. “Later in the hearing reversed again and said that he and I just ‘disagree’ on that point.”
Wolf also noted that Giuliano’s assertion that Hasan and al-Awlaki never met in Virginia has been countered by numerous media reports stating that Hasan met his mentor in 2001 when the cleric presided over his mother’s funeral. “Please confirm for the record whether or not Maj. Hasan and Aulaqi met while he served as imam for the Dar al Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Virginia,” Wolf asked. “If so, please provide a summary of the FBI’s full understanding of their encounters, including the funeral.”
The third point of contention involves the FBI official classifying al-Awlaki, a radical cleric who became a recruiter for al-Qaeda in Yemen, as a “propagandist.”
Giuliano characterized the terrorist as such when refusing to answer a committee question on whether violent Islamic extremism was at the root of the Fort Hood massacre.
Under questioning from ranking member Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.), Giuliano said that al-Awlaki “changed and he changed a lot over the years. When he went to prison in Yemen in, you know, ’06, ’07 and as he came out and came back up online in early ’08, he still had somewhat of a moderate tone but – but began to be more of a propagandist, began to show more radical tendencies, but we could not and the [Intelligence Committee] did not see him as operational or in an operational role at that time.”
“This statement, quite simply, is fundamentally false,” Wolf wrote, citing a 2008 Washington Post article in which a U.S. counterterrorism official said there was good reason to believe al-Awlaki “has been involved in very serious terrorist activities since leaving the United States” — the same time period in which the FBI official said he “still had somewhat of a moderate tone.”
Al-Awlaki also had amassed a lengthy record of radical writings by this time, including praise of the 9/11 hijackers and Palestinian suicide bombers — far from a “moderate” tone. He even wrote of his own radicalization path, beginning with the mujahadeen in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, for al-Qaeda’s Inspire magazine shortly before his death.
The Webster Commission report, Wolf pointed out, specifically notes that at least certain sections of the bureau perceived the threat posed by Awlaki around 2009 as more serious than a mere “propagandist” or radicalizer, and the Treasury Department noted al-Awlaki’s operational role in terrorist activities in announcing his July 2010 placement on the sanctions list.
Citing additional evidence from an NYPD analysis on al-Awlaki, which showed even more terror ties, Wolf said that as early as 14 years ago the FBI was keeping a sharp eye on the radical cleric — which made Giuliano’s assertions all the more confusing.
“Given this public information demonstrating Aulaqi’s long history with al-Qaeda-affiliated groups and multiple bureau investigations, please confirm for the record whether the bureau viewed Aulaqi only as ‘propagandist’ with a ‘moderate tone’ as late as 2008, or in fact regarded him as a more complex and substantial threat than Mr. Giuliano described?” Wolf wrote.
Giuliano was also asked whether Hasan or al-Awlaki had ever been confidential informants for the FBI, and responded, “No, sir.”
But in his final Inspire column, al-Awlaki wrote, “I was visited by two men who introduced themselves as officials with the US government (they did not specify which government organization they belonged to) and that they are interested in my cooperation with them. When I asked what cooperation did they expect, they responded by saying that they are interested in having me liaise with them concerning the Muslim community in San Diego.”
The Webster Commission report noted that agents in San Diego suspected that al-Awlaki had a relationship with the bureau that kept the Washington office from investigating his ties with Hasan further.
“In light of Aulaqi’s own comments, I would like you to provide for the record whether the FBI or other federal agencies ever approached, cultivated or targeted Aulaqi or Hasan to be potential confidential informants,” Wolf asked Mueller. “I believe this additional information would help reconcile Aulaqi’s comments with the bureau’s actions – and perhaps clarify why the FBI was reluctant to take more aggressive investigative actions with regard to Aulaqi.”
The congressman’s fifth point of contention is the relationship al-Awlaki had with the 9/11 hijackers and how the FBI’s understanding of that may have influenced its actions before the Fort Hood shootings.
“We were never able to obtain a stitch of evidence that shows Aulaqi knew beforehand about 9/11 or supported the 9/11 hijackers,” Giuliano told the committee. This runs counter to suspicions express in the 9/11 Commission report and links uncovered last year by House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Pete King (R-N.Y.), which he shared with Mueller and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Links have also been revealed by the NYPD report and by New York Times reporting.
“Please confirm for the record whether Mr. Guiliano’s characterization correctly represents the FBI’s understanding of Aulaqi’s connection to the 9/11 plot today, especially in light of any information that may have been learned from documents seized during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in May 2011,” Wolf wrote.
The chairman finally sought clarification on the FBI’s understanding of al-Awlaki’s 2002 return to the United States.
“As you know, for several years I have been pressing the FBI for a full accounting of why Aulaqi was abruptly released from custody upon his return to the U.S. in October 2002,” Wolf wrote. “I have not yet received an unclassified explanation.”
“…While there may have been a reasonable argument for allowing him into the U.S. at the time the decision was made in October 2002, the FBI has, thus far, failed to publicly explain its rationale and its role,” he continued. “More troubling, the documents surrounding the release of Aulaqi do not match the bureau’s public statements on this incident.”
That fall, al-Awlaki was held at JFK Airport on a warrant for fraudulent Social Security and passport statements, then “inexplicably” released into the U.S. — even though the NYPD reported that he was placed on the terror watch list that summer and Giuliano said the FBI “knew he was coming in.”
“I assure you, the bureau, if anything at that point, would have, if we could have incarcerated Aulaqi, we would have,” Giuliano told the panel.
“During the hearing, I raised the question of whether the FBI requested that Aulaqi be allowed into the country, without detention for the outstanding warrant, due to a parallel investigation regarding Aulaqi’s former colleague al Timimi, a radical imam who was recruiting American Muslims to terrorism,” Wolf wrote. “Notably, the Timimi case was being led by the same WFO agent who called the U.S. attorney’s office and customs on the morning of October 10. Did WFO want Aulaqi released to assist in its investigation of Timimi?”
Ali al-Timimi, a Washington, D.C., native, was sentenced to life in prison in 2005 for recruiting jihadists.
“I am asking you to provide the committee with a detailed unclassified accounting of the FBI’s actions in October 2002 with regard to Aulaqi,” Wolf asked Mueller. “Given that I have been asking for this information since 2010, I believe it is long overdue.”
Wolf also asked for a full explanation of why the Justice Department failed to use its power granted by anti-terror statutes to investigate and prosecute Hasan — and potentially have stopped the Fort Hood massacre.
The chairman asked for a response from Mueller to all of his inquiries by Sept. 15.
“Had Aulaqi been arrested and tried in 2002, there is a chance that his rise as a radicalizer and terrorist operative over the last decade might have been prevented,” said Wolf.