Radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who counseled Ft. Hood murderer Maj. Nidal Hasan, was in FBI custody briefly in 2002 but was abruptly released from federal custody, according to a hearing on Wednesday. The cleric was returning to the U.S. through JFK airport in New York City when a customs database flagged him because he had an outstanding arrest warrant for falsifying his Social Security application as part of a foreign student scholarship scam. An FBI agent and a U.S. attorney in Colorado discussed the cleric’s re-entry and the warrant, and suddenly he was free to go.
Al-Awlaki became the first American killed by the CIA in a drone strike last September, and has been named as part of 26 terrorism cases. Mark Giuliano, the FBI's assistant director for national security, testified Wednesday that the FBI knew the cleric was returning to the U.S. before he arrived.
During Wednesday's hearing, Giuliano could not explain a chronology snafu. Al-Awlaki was in custody in the early morning on Oct. 10, 2002, when FBI agent Wade Ammerman told customs agents that "the warrant ... had been pulled back." But that doesn’t wash; it was only 5:40 a.m. in Colorado, and the U.S. attorney and the courts weren’t even close to being open.
Then how did the arrest warrant get pulled so fast? The DOJ said in 2010 that reviewing the warrant was a routine act, but the judge had already signed off on the warrant, and it is not routine to review a warrant after that. The DOJ spokesman said:
“As the U.S. Attorney’s Office reviewed the Awlaki case in preparing for presentation before a grand jury for an indictment, the federal prosecutor assigned to handle the matter determined that additional investigation was required. The U.S. Attorney’s Office learned during the subsequent investigation that the Social Security Administration would testify only that Awlaki was entitled to a Social Security number, that the number was valid and that their records indicated that he corrected his place of birth.”
One problem: there was no correction of the record. Al-Awlaki never corrected the record, contrary to what the Justice Department has stated. Documents show the warrant was still active when the cleric was arrested and only pulled later in the day.
Adding to the suspicion about the FBI is the fact that even when al-Awlaki was under a full FBI investigation, he was invited to lunch at an executive dining room at the Pentagon in February 2002.
There is a possible shady explanation for al-Awlaki’s release. Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer said earlier this year that al-Awlaki worked as a triple agent and an FBI asset well before 9/11. Shaffer wrote a memoir on Able Danger, a supposed Defense Intelligence Agency data-mining program that uncovered two of the three terrorist cells later implicated in the September 11 attacks, which was censored by the Pentagon. If Shaffer is correct, American intelligence had been working with al-Awlaki from the last years of the Clinton presidency.
There is an answer as to why the Muslim cleric was let go, but it may take years to find out what that answer is.