Published August 26, 2011
While the New Mexico-born cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, is the first American on the CIA's kill or capture list, the U.S. State Department refuses to release documents about al-Awlaki citing his right to privacy. This disconnect was uncovered as part of the ongoing investigation by Fox News' Specials Unit into the cleric who is a leader of a major Al Qaeda affiliate.
Through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in March 2010, Fox News requested "....any and all records maintained by the United States Department of State, in the passport file...." for the cleric. Initially, the request was referred to Human Resources at the State Department, before a formal response was issued more than a year later, in August 2011. The letter reads in part :
"The Department of State, Passport Services has reviewed your request and has given full consideration to the reasons provided. However, we have determined that your request must be denied. This denial is pursuant to subsection (b)(6) of the Freedom of Information Act. The release of this information to you would be an invasion of personal privacy of another person, without written authorization from that person."
The government refused to release the records for the terror leader who is well known to be the first American that the U.S. government has green-lighted to be killed or captured.
After 9/11, Anwar Al-Awlaki was a tier one, priority target for the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) in San Diego because of his known contacts with the hijackers. A State Department agent assigned to the JTTF, Ray Fournier, put together an arrest warrant for passport fraud in 2002. As part of that fraud, al-Awlaki lied on his Social Security application claiming he was born in Yemen, not New Mexico. At the time, there was not enough firm evidence to link the cleric to 9/11, so the passport fraud case was seen as a holding charge.
In addition, as Fox News was first to report in its special "The American Terrorist," the cleric fraudulently obtained $20,000 in scholarship money to fund his college education in Colorado. Al-Awlaki, who is a dual U.S./Yemeni national, claimed to be a foreign student. As an American citizen, the cleric was not entitled to the scholarship paid for by the U.S. taxpayer. According to the agent who handled the case, the documents still exist and are held by the State Department.
The denial of State Department documents is part of an ongoing pattern. In 2010, through the Freedom of Information Act, Fox News sought an FBI intelligence report, also known as an EC, that was written about the cleric and his radical ties two days before the cleric mysteriously entered the U.S. in October 2002 and the arrest warrant for passport fraud was pulled by the Justice Department. When the 27 page EC was produced by the FBI, all of the pages were redacted, citing national security and an executive order -- most likely, the warrantless wiretapping program.
Both the Justice Department and FBI have refused Fox News' requests and resisted calls from Congress to explain why the cleric was able to slip through the grasp of federal agents just one year after the 9/11 attacks. On Oct. 10, 2002, Al-Awlaki was held by Customs agents at JFK International airport for three hours until an FBI agent, Wade Ammerman, ordered the cleric's release, even though there was an active warrant for al-Awlaki's arrest on passport fraud.
Despite repeated requests, the FBI has refused to make agent Ammerman available for questions. The bureau has not disputed Fox News' reporting that the FBI was trying to cultivate the cleric as an intelligence asset or, that at the very least, agents wanted to follow the cleric to gather intelligence.
Last winter, as part of the Fox News special "Secrets of 9/11," Fox News asked the Defense Department to provide all documents, video or still photos of the cleric's lunch at the Pentagon in February 2002. Fox News was first to report that the cleric was hosted by the Office of General Counsel as part of the military's outreach to moderate Muslims. In 2002, there was virtually no vetting of the cleric who had contact with three of the five hijackers on Flight 77 that slammed into the Pentagon. At the time, al-Awlaki had already been interviewed at least four times by the FBI because of his suspicious contacts with the hijackers.
The Defense Department FOIA request produced only one email -- where almost all of the names of those invited to the event were redacted -- once again citing an invasion of personal privacy.
This summer, the House Homeland Security Committee launched an official investigation into the cleric -- whether he was an overlooked key player in the plot and whether he was an Al Qaeda operative from the beginning. The mainstream narrative is that al-Awlaki was radicalized after 2001, but the Fox News investigation "Secrets of 9/11" first broadcast in May presents a compelling case that the cleric was at the center of a pre-9/11 support network.
Newly declassified documents, exclusive interviews, phone and banking records leave little doubt that the cleric's contacts with the two hijackers, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar in San Diego, and pilot Hani Hanjour in Virginia were not a series of coincidences but rather evidence of a purposeful relationship. While House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King, R-N.Y., set a deadline of June 17 for the materials and witnesses to be produced, a Justice Department spokesman told Fox News in August the request is still being worked on.
Anwar al-Awlaki and his contacts with the first two hijackers to enter the U.S. in January 2000 are central to the plot. It was at al-Awlaki's mosque in a rundown neighborhood of San Diego where the three men met on a regular basis. A new book by former FBI interrogator Ali Soufan is at the center of a reported dispute with the CIA. Published reports state the book will blame the CIA missed an opportunity to disrupt the plot by failing to provide information to the FBI.
Fox News' Special Unit continues to investigate the cleric and its updated special "Secrets of 9/11" will be broadcast in advance of the 9/11 anniversary.
National Correspondent Catherine Herridge's bestselling book "The Next Wave: On the Hunt for al Qaeda's American Recruits" was published by Crown on June 21st. It draws on her reporting for Fox News into al-Awlaki and his new generation of recruits - al Qaeda 2.0. It is the first book to full investigate al-Awlaki's American life, his connections to the hijackers, and how the cleric double crossed the FBI after 9/11.