WASHINGTON – FBI agents botched a terrorism investigation in Florida and tried to cover up mistakes, said Justice Department investigators, who also concluded that a high-ranking official retaliated against the veteran undercover agent who first pointed out the problems.
The findings were included in a draft report by the Justice Department's inspector general on a complaint made by former agent Michael German about an investigation in Orlando that he believed showed promising signs of a link between terrorism financing and the sale of illegal drugs.
The inspector general's office "substantiated German's allegations that the Orlando case was mishandled and mismanaged by the FBI's Tampa Division," the report said. German, who left the FBI in 2004 after 16 years, received the Nov. 15 draft and made it public.
But the inspector general did not back up his contention that the agent in Orlando and FBI supervisors missed the chance to unravel a terrorism financing operation, concluding there was no evidence to undermine earlier reviews that the suspect had no link to terrorists.
German said Monday that the inspector general gave too much credence to those reviews, especially after documenting other significant problems.
Among the most serious issues investigators found in an inquiry that began in January 2004 was the use of correction fluid to alter dates on three FBI forms to obscure an apparent violation of federal wiretap law. But the investigation did not determine who made the changes.
The agent who handled the terrorism investigation in 2002 also misdated reports to make it appear he completed them much sooner than he had. One account of a key meeting between an informant and the main subject of the investigation was not entered in the FBI database for 10 months, the report said. FBI policy says such reporting normally should be done within five days.
German sought protection as a whistleblower in September 2002, by which time he believed his complaints were being ignored. Government employees who report allegations of wrongdoing are supposed to be shielded from retaliation.
Yet the report found that Jorge Martinez, then the chief of the FBI's Undercover and Sensitive Operations Unit, excluded German from serving as an instructor in undercover training programs in response to German's decision to persistently raise questions about the case.
Martinez told another FBI official he wouldn't use German in the training programs — despite his previous regular participant in such training — because he lacked confidence in him, the report said. Martinez said he didn't recall saying that, but if he did, it was a "knee-jerk reaction but did not mean to indicate I was retaliating against him."
The FBI had no comment on the report.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, a critic of the FBI and ardent defender of whistleblowers, said German is "in a long line of FBI whistleblowers who have had their careers derailed because the FBI couldn't tolerate criticism. I look forward to seeing a final report on Mr. German's case, but right now I believe it to be a sad day when someone at the FBI alters records in order to discredit a whistleblower."