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FBI tracked radical American cleric to Defense Dept. lunch, documents show

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Sept. 30, 2011: Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric linked to Al Qaeda's Yemen-based wing, gives a religious lecture in an unknown location in this still image taken from video released by Intelwire.com. (Reuters)

The FBI’s elite surveillance unit tracked the radical American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki to the Pentagon entrance for his controversial luncheon speech to senior Defense Department officials on February 5, 2002, according to newly declassified documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

The more than 250 pages of FBI surveillance logs, marked “secret” and obtained by Judicial Watch and reviewed by Fox News, show the FBI’s Special Surveillance Group or SSG, which is reserved for tracking suspected terrorists and espionage cases, trailed the cleric for six hours before watching him enter the Pentagon from the subway with two unidentified woman who escorted him into the building.

Al-Awlaki, who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011, addressed the luncheon on “Islam and Middle Eastern Politics and Culture.”

According to the FBI log, at 11:30 am “Aulaqi boarded the Metro train, blue line, north for the Pentagon.”   At 11:32, “Aulaqi exited the Metro train, walked through the turnstyle (sic) and greeted two unidentified white females.”   At 11:40 am, “Aulaqi and the two unidentified females walked through the train station, onto the escalator, walked southwest and west adjacent to the Pentagon, up to the steps and walked northeast toward the entrance to the Pentagon.”  And at 12:00pm “Surveillance discontinued at the Pentagon.”

As part of a section also dated February 5 and titled “Analysis/Administrative Data,”  the FBI surveillance logs state that the agent in charge of the Awlaki case was apparently aware of the cleric’s planned luncheon, though it is unknown whether this information was picked up through the monitoring of the cleric’s phone and email, or whether the case agent had learned the information directly from the cleric.

“(Name redacted) was informed by the Case Agent that Aulaqi would be giving a speech at the Pentagon,” it said.

Fox News was the first news organization to report that the cleric was invited to, and attended,  a luncheon at the Defense Department five months after the 9/11 attacks. More than 70 people were copied on the invitation, including the Department’s senior lawyers from the Office of General Counsel.

The invitation, obtained by Fox through the Freedom of Information Act, showed the proposed menu at an executive dining room included smoked ham and bacon sandwiches.

The release of the FBI surveillance documents by Judicial Watch comes as two senior Republican lawmakers are asking new FBI Director James Comey to resolve lingering questions over whether the first American targeted by the U.S. for death was at one time an FBI asset, or if the Bureau tried to make him an asset in 2002.

In the joint letter, Congressmen Frank Wolf of Virginia and Peter King of New York write “We believe the current transition in leadership provides an opportune time for you to clarify the record on this matter and to address some inconsistencies in comments and correspondence from bureau officials.”

The congressmen cite Fox’s August  interview with outgoing FBI Director  Robert Mueller.  When asked about the cleric and whether the bureau tried to make him, or considered him, an asset in 2002, Mueller said “I am not personally familiar with any effort to recruit Anwar al-Awlaki as an asset – that does not mean to say there was not an effort at some level of the Bureau or another agency to do so.”

The congressmen also ask the bureau to fully release and declassify a handful of documents, obtained earlier this year through the Judicial Watch lawsuit, which include a memo from Mueller to then Attorney General  John Ashcroft on Awlaki, as well as an FBI memo dated October 22, 2002 with the subject line Anwar al-Awlaki and a caption reading “asset reporting.”

As part of its four-year investigation, Fox News has shown that the cleric was held at JFK international airport on October 10, 2002 because of an outstanding warrant for his arrest.  An FBI agent, Wade Ammerman, told Customs to let him into the country even though the warrant was still active. 

Days later, Awlaki showed up in Ammerman’s counterterrorism investigation in Virginia. The subject of Ammerman’s investigation, Ali al-Timimi, later claimed in court documents he believed Awlaki  came to his home wearing a wire.  Timimi’s case is currently on appeal.

“The recently – released FBI documents may be open to a number of interpretations, “ the congressmen wrote.  “One fair reading of them, in the context of our previously voiced concerns, is the following: the bureau unsuccessfully attempted to exploit Aulaqi’s vulnerabilities, to develop him as a confidential human source, after misjudging Aulaqi’s role in the 9/11 conspiracy, and his membership in al-Qaeda before that day.”

Awlaki had direct contact with two of the hijackers on Flight 77, which hit the Pentagon.  The FBI interviewed Awlaki at least four times in the first week after 9/11, based on his connections to hijackers in San Diego and in Falls Church, Virginia.

Asked whether the FBI contacted the Defense Department about its surveillance of the cleric in 2002, a spokesman said “These documents seem pretty heavily redacted so I would again caution against drawing any meaningful conclusions.”

Fox News received no immediate response when it asked the Defense Department if there should have been notification by the FBI about its surveillance of the cleric and evidence that he was associated with the hijackers.

The ongoing reporting of Fox News and recently declassified records also show the cleric frequently used prostitutes and the FBI considered prosecution.   

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.

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