Mueller grilled on FBI's release of al-Awlaki in 2002
Several congressional committees want the FBI director to explain why one of his agents ordered the release of Anwar al-Awlaki from federal custody on Oct. 10, 2002, when there was an outstanding warrant for the American Muslim cleric’s arrest.
“There are a number of committees interested in the facts of what happened early on with al-Awlaki, and we'd be happy to give you a briefing of what we know. We've done it before, we'll do it again,” FBI Director Robert Mueller told Republican Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia.
Wolf first wrote to Mueller in spring 2010, based on the Fox News’ ongoing investigation of al-Awlaki, who was killed last year in a CIA-led drone strike in Yemen, on Sept. 30. Fox News was told that the congressman, whose district once included the cleric’s Virginia mosque, was not satisfied by the FBI’s earlier briefings.
Now that the cleric is dead, Wolf urged Mueller to be more transparent about the bureau’s interactions with al-Awlaki.
“I believe the bureau could, hopefully, be more forthcoming with regard to the 2002 incident. It is important that we look at how past incidents were handled so we're better prepared for the future," Wolf said. "And I can't help but think how history could've been different, especially at Fort Hood, if al-Awlaki had been arrested and prosecuted back in October 2002.”
Thirteen peole were killed at Fort Hood and more than 30 injured. Mueller said he was “painfully aware” of the facts. The alleged Fort Hood shooter, Maj. Nidal Hasan, was in contact, via email, with al-Awlaki, who may have inspired the massacre.
“Our sympathy to the victims' families, it's, you know, very painful and every one of us feels badly that it occurred and that we could not stop it,” Mueller explained.
Fox News' Specials Unit reported that the cleric was held by customs agents at JFK International Airport in New York City in early morning of Oct. 10, 2002, until FBI Agent Wade Ammerman ordered his release – even though a warrant for the cleric’s arrest on passport fraud was still active.
The warrant was generated by the Joint Terrorism Task Force in San Diego, which considered the cleric a “tier one” target because of his connections to at least three of the 9/11 hijackers. The passport fraud warrant was described to Fox News as a holding charge that would allow federal investigators to pressure al-Awlaki over his 9/11 contacts.
The warrant was pulled by a judge in Colorado, after the cleric entered the U.S. A U.S. attorney in Colorado who oversaw the warrant and the Justice Department claimed the cleric’s earlier lies to the Social Security Administration, the basis of the charge, had been corrected. But new documents obtained by Fox News through the Freedom of Information Act show otherwise.
After al-Awlaki re-entered the U.S. in the fall of 2002 with the FBI’s help, the cleric then appeared in a high-profile investigation, in which Agent Ammerman was a lead investigator. The FBI has not made the agent available to Fox News to interview, nor has the Department of Justice made the U.S. attorney on the case available. Former FBI agents say Ammerman would have needed permission from higher up in the bureau to let al-Awlaki go.
The House Homeland Security Committee launched an official investigation into the cleric and his 9/11 connections last year, but sources tell Fox News that committee staffers have been frustrated by the FBI’s resistance to providing documents and witnesses, citing “ongoing investigations.”
Wolf urged the FBI director to brief other lawmakers, including the head of the house intelligence committee, so that a similar scenario “never happens again.”
Fox News confirmed that the October 2002 incident and the arrest warrant for al-Awlaki was never disclosed to the 9/11 Commission or to Congress.
Former FBI agents, familiar with al-Awlaki’s re-entry in October 2002, say only two scenarios seem to explain what happened. The FBI was tracking the cleric for intelligence or the FBI was working with the cleric and saw him as a “friendly contact.”
Fox News chief intelligence correspondent Catherine Herridge's bestselling book "The Next Wave: On the Hunt for al Qaeda's American Recruits" draws on her reporting for Fox News into al-Awlaki and his new generation of recruits -- al Qaeda 2.0.