A U.S. congressman from Virginia charges the Justice Department withheld from Congress and the Sept. 11 Commission key documents concerning the investigation of a fugitive al-Qaida cleric at the heart of the Sept. 11, 2001, plot and other terrorism.
Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., has called on the White House to re-impanel the Sept. 11 Commission to investigate the FBI’s post–Sept. 11 probe of Anwar Awlaki, an American-born imam who met privately with some of the Sept. 11 hijackers before fleeing the country and inspiring other terrorists, including the Fort Hood attacker.
Wolf points to recent revelations that the Justice Department issued a felony arrest warrant for Awlaki (aka Aulaqi) in June 2002, when he was living in Northern Virginia and preaching at a local mosque – only to withdraw the warrant the day before Awlaki returned to the U.S. from a trip to Saudi Arabia.
In October 2002, Awlaki – who at the time appeared on a terrorist lookout as the subject of several terror probes – was briefly detained by federal agents at JFK International Airport in New York City after arriving on a Saudi jetliner. The FBI field office in Washington advised agents to release him, however, noting that the federal warrant had been pulled back the previous day.
The law-enforcement actions generated an extensive paper trail, including a thick case file, an arrest warrant signed by a federal judge and INS incident logs, which have been unearthed by investigative reporters since the Sept. 11 Commission finished its work. Neither Sept. 11 commissioners nor members of Congress saw the documents, despite requesting all such documents and interviewing FBI case agents involved in the Awlaki probe who knew of the documents.
“Why was this information withheld?” Wolf asked FBI Director Robert Mueller in a recent letter. “Why has Congress not been fully briefed on the events of October 2002?”
In addition, “I am troubled that the Sept. 11 Commission did not have access to many of the documents with regard to this incident,” he wrote.
Wolf, a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and ranking Republican on the House subcommittee on Foreign Operations, has requested the White House call back the co-chairs of the Sept. 11 Commission for six months to revisit the portion of their investigation dealing with Awlaki. The panel concluded Awlaki’s involvement with the hijackers was suspicious and that he likely had some role in the Sept. 11 plot.
Wolf said in his letter that he was responding to “troubling” details aired in an hour-long Fox News special on Awlaki, which aired in late May.
The Fox documentary special, “The American Terrorist,” is based on classified documents uncovered by investigative journalist and author Paul Sperry in his books “Infiltration” (which devotes an entire chapter to Awlaki) and “Muslim Mafia,” both of which are cited in the broadcast. Sperry is interviewed throughout the special, along with the federal case agent who worked with prosecutors on the 2002 warrant for Awlaki’s arrest.
Following in the footsteps of the Fox report, CNN is preparing its own report on Awlaki’s catch-and-release, which will be narrated by CNN correspondent Deborah Feyerick.
In the past, CNN had been skeptical of Awlaki’s ties to terrorism, and even used Awlaki as a moderate voice representing the Muslim community in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. CNN recently interviewed Awlaki’s father in Yemen, where the younger Awlaki is hiding, providing him an international platform to declare his son’s innocence and to plead with the U.S. to remove him from the CIA’s terrorist hit list.
“Interestingly, CNN was using Anwar as their go-to Muslim after Sept. 11,” a Homeland Security official said. “So they really look a bit foolish with all of the revelations now about Anwar’s deep, longstanding terrorist connections.”
Awlaki is also now wanted in connection with the Times Square car-bomb and Christmas Day airline-bomb plot.
Wolf also wants the Sept. 11 Commission and Congress to investigate how Awlaki managed to fraudulently obtain more than $20,000 in federal scholarship funds reserved for foreign students, which first was reported by Sperry. Awlaki was born in New Mexico and, therefore, ineligible for such funds. The accused terrorist nonetheless attended Colorado State University on taxpayer funds, earning an engineering degree.
“Why did the Justice Department choose not to prosecute Awlaki for illegally obtaining more than $20,000 in federal funds?” Wolf asked Mueller in his letter.
In the Fox News special, Sept. 11 Commission Executive Director Philip Zelikow confirmed Sperry’s reporting in “Infiltration” and “Muslim Mafia” that his panel was denied key federal documents concerning Awlaki.