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Lawmaker accuses FBI official of faulty testimony on how bureau handled al-Awlaki

Anwar al Awlaki.jpg

American Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, seen in this 2008 file photo, was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011.AP

A Republican congressman, in a letter obtained exclusively by Fox News, accuses a senior FBI official of making misleading statements or providing incorrect testimony about the Fort Hood massacre and about the bureau’s contact with the American Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“I am concerned that the bureau’s witness at this recent hearing, Mr. Mark Giuliano, the executive assistant director for national security, 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) al-Awlaki,” Rep. Frank Wolf wrote in the letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller, dated Wednesday.

During testimony earlier this month before Wolf’s appropriations subcommittee, which has oversight of the FBI, the congressman questioned whether a decision by the FBI to let al-Awlaki walk away from a federal arrest warrant in 2002 was evidence the bureau wanted to work on terrorism cases with the cleric as an informant.

Giuliano insisted to the committee that the FBI would have incarcerated the cleric if it had been possible, but the warrant was weak. But Wolf, in his letter, made clear he didn't buy that explanation.

“I would like you to provide for the record whether the FBI or other federal agencies ever approached, cultivated or targeted Aulaqi or Hasan (the alleged Fort Hood shooter) to be potential confidential informants.  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.”

In an incident first reported by Fox News as part of its ongoing investigation of the cleric, al-Awlaki was detained by customs agents at New York City's JFK airport because there was an active warrant for his arrest on passport fraud.

At the time, al-Awlaki was the subject of a full investigation by the FBI’s Washington Field Office, and he had been interviewed at least three times in the first week after 9/11 because of his known contact with two of the hijackers. He was killed in September 2011 in Yemen by a U.S. drone strike.

On the morning of Oct. 10, 2002, FBI agent Wade Ammerman told customs agents to release al-Awlaki, even though court records show the arrest warrant was still active. 

On a bipartisan basis, the committee rejected Giuliano's explanations as not believable, because after the cleric was released from federal custody at JFK on the say-so of Agent Ammerman, the cleric then turned up in Ammerman’s investigation in Virginia of Ali al-Timimi, who was later convicted of inciting terrorism. While Timimi’s case is on appeal, court records show he thought al-Awlaki was wired.

Wolf suggested the FBI agent wanted the cleric in the U.S. to facilitate his case.

“While there may have been a reasonable argument for allowing him (the cleric) 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," Wolf writes in his letter. "More troubling, the documents surrounding the release of Aulaqi do not match the bureau’s public statements on this incident….

"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.  Notably, the Timimi case was being led by the same WFO (Washington Field Office) agent who called the U.S. attorney’s office and customs on the morning of October 10.  Did WFO (the FBI Washington Field Office) want Aulaqi released to assist in its investigation of Timimi?"

At time the FBI allowed the cleric to walk in 2002, according to the ACLU, dozens of  young Muslim men were being detained in the U.S. on material witness warrants who, unlike al-Awlaki, had no known ties to the hijackers.

The 10-page letter asks the FBI to explain more than a half dozen apparent inconsistencies about its public statements on the cleric and the findings of the independent report, by Judge William Webster, into the 2009 massacre at Fort Hood.

The letter also questions the FBI’s view of al-Awlaki in 2008 and 2009 as a propagandist who had yet to cross the threshold to violence. There is now strong circumstantial evidence, as first reported by Fox News, that the cleric’s contacts with the hijackers were not a series of coincidences but rather evidence of a purposeful relationship.

As one example, the cleric knew a Syrian, Daoud Chehazeh, who facilitated the hijackers in Virginia. Fox News has shown that a series of bureaucratic screw-ups has allowed the Syrian to continue living in New Jersey, where he is fighting deportation.

Rep. Wolf has asked the FBI Director Mueller for a response, which should be copied to the leadership of the House and Senate Homeland Security committees, as well as the leadership of the House and Senate Intelligence committees and those members responsible for appropriations.

“I hope you can understand why I was disappointed in a number of the statements made to the subcommittee during this hearing. That is why I wanted to give you the opportunity to correct the record. I expect that you will provide the committee, by September 15, with the necessary information to clarify some of these misleading, inaccurate or incomplete statements.  I look forward to your response,” Wolf concluded.

The FBI had no immediate comment on the letter when contacted by Fox News.

Catherine Herridge is an award-winning Chief Intelligence correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC) based in Washington, D.C. She covers intelligence, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security. Herridge joined FNC in 1996 as a London-based correspondent.