A war has broken out on American soil, largely below the public radar screen. On May 13, 2003, Attorney General John Ashcroft and Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge signed a “Memorandum of Agreement” between the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that gives the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) unprecedented unilateral control of all terrorist-financing investigations and operations. The agreement raises questions about the need for a Department of Homeland Security, if the FBI will be handling all relevant terror investigations.
Several seasoned government agents fear for the nation’s security should the FBI be tackling most terrorism cases, as their ineptitude in preventing terrorism has been established time and time again. Yet, the memorandum between Ashcroft and Ridge places the FBI in an incredibly powerful position over Homeland Security. According to the memorandum, “[A]ll appropriate DHS leads relating to money laundering and financial crimes will be checked with the FBI.” If the FBI feels the case is related to terrorist financing and should belong to them, “the investigation and operation of the matter shall be led by the FBI.”
This usurpation creates a gigantic imbalance of power in criminal investigations, as the FBI now has the power to create or kill any terrorist-financing investigation it deems appropriate or inappropriate to investigate. This puts the FBI in a position to control too much and is eerily reminiscent of the former Soviet Union’s oppressive intelligence agency, the KGB. Like the KGB, the FBI seeks to run itself with no checks and balances, a necessary hallmark of the American system of government and civil rights. The memorandum makes the point that FBI agents assigned to work in conjunction with DHS agents “are provided full and timely access to all data developed in ICE’s [Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement] money laundering and financial crimes cases on an ongoing basis.” The reciprocal is not stated in the agreement, continuing the FBI’s long-held policy of refusing to share their information with other agencies.
Amazingly, though, just after 9/11 the FBI admitted it did not have the ability to handle counterterrorism cases. According to a May 2003 General Accounting Office (GAO) Report about interagency information sharing, “the Director of the FBI testified in June 2002 that implementing a more proactive approach to preventing terrorist acts and denying terrorist groups the ability to operate and raise funds require a centralized and robust analytical capacity that did not exist in the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division.” Yet, because the FBI is so well funded and staffed compared to the other agencies, the bureau can play the PR game better than any other agency. Thus, while strong-arming other agencies and bullying them out of investigations, the FBI maintains a positive face in the eyes of the American public and takes credit for investigations in which they were only tangentially involved.
For those who do not fear that the FBI will be handling future terrorist financing investigations, let’s look at the agency’s track record when it comes to protecting the United States from terrorist financing:
Even after the September 11 attacks, the FBI failed to pursue obvious terrorist financing leads. In a hugely embarrassing moment, the FBI failed to do anything about Ptech, Inc., a company whose prime investor was a Specially Designated Global Terrorist Entity, Saudi Yassin al-Qadi. In desperation, the vice president of sales at Ptech contacted the FBI and pleaded with them to look into the organization, as he saw in the news that Qadi was allegedly connected to funding al Qaeda. After repeated meetings with increasingly higher-ranking FBI officials where the employees beseeched the agency to look into the company, the bureau did nothing, despite knowing that Qadi was a primary financier of Ptech.
Furthermore, the FBI was aware that Ptech provided computer software for several government agencies, including the FBI itself, the FAA, the U.S. Treasury, the Department of Defense, the IRS, and the White House, proving a visible and viable threat to national security. The FBI ignored the repeated requests of concerned employees. Frighteningly, when an employee told the President of Ptech he felt he had to contact the FBI regarding Qadi’s involvement in the company, the president allegedly told him not to worry because Yaqub Mirza, who was on the board of directors of the company and was himself a target of a terrorist financing raid in March 2002, had contacts high within the FBI.
After months of the FBI refusing to do anything substantive, it took the efforts of U.S. Customs, now a part of Homeland Security, to raid the business in December 2002 and jumpstart the investigation into the alleged terrorist financial network.
Perhaps the FBI’s biggest blunder was in ignoring the enormous alleged terrorist financial network of companies and nonprofit organizations mostly in Herndon, Virginia, named by investigators as the “SAAR Network.” The FBI had been aware of the SAAR Network since the early 1990s, when the Bureau investigated alleged terrorist Sami Al-Arian, as the investigation revealed that the SAAR Network was funneling money to al-Arian. The FBI chose to ignore the case for unknown reasons, though some have speculated it was due to the SAAR Network’s close association to wealthy Saudis who funded the network.
It was not until Operation GreenQuest, a joint task force headed by U.S. Customs which sought to disrupt terrorist financing, picked up the scent of the SAAR Network that a raid occurred. In March 2002, GreenQuest, in a victory for Americans everywhere, raided the SAAR Network in 15 locations in the largest terrorist financial bust in U.S. history.
In a well-publicized scandal, FBI Agent Gamal Abdel-Hafiz refused to tape record secretly the Muslim president of an organization suspected of funneling money that may have helped finance the 1998 U.S.-embassy bombings in East Africa. Abdel-Hafiz, a Muslim, defended his actions by stating, according to FBI Agent Robert Wright, “A Muslim does not record another Muslim.” When offered protection by the FBI to wear a wire, Abdel-Hafiz, himself an FBI agent, stated, “The FBI can’t protect me. The FBI, I don’t trust them,” according to an affidavit written by FBI Agent Robert Wright. Furthermore, another FBI agent, Barry Carmody, maintained that Abdel Hafiz refused to tape record a conversation with alleged Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Sami Al-Arian, who has since been indicted.
How did the FBI respond to this outrage? They promoted Abdel-Hafiz to assistant legal attaché to the U.S. embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and banned Agent Wright from giving interviews.
Now, the FBI is attempting to wrest the SAAR Network investigation from GreenQuest and take all the credit for GreenQuest’s dedication and hard work. The agreement between Ashcroft and Ridge is a crushing blow to GreenQuest, as it effectively dissolves the outstanding task force. According to the memorandum, “The Secretary [of Homeland Security] agrees that no later than June 30, 2003, Operation GreenQuest (OGQ) will no longer exist as a program name.”
GreenQuest, the most successful antiterrorist-financing task squad in the history of the United States, is being disbanded because of the FBI’s lust for power and glory. At a time when al Qaeda is resurging, the more agencies we have sharing information and investigating terrorism, the better off this nation will be. Given the FBI’s track record, the bureau should be punished, not rewarded for unjustifiably bullying a new department into giving it more power, especially after FBI Director Robert Mueller admitted the bureau does not have the analytical capability to provide effective counterterrorism.
Secretary Ridge must fight for the Department of Homeland Security’s right to investigate terrorism, as the law enables him to do. The FBI has stymied and fumbled terrorism investigations for far too long. Secretary Ridge has the right and the duty to provide this country with a safe environment that the FBI has hitherto been unable to provide. For the safety and benefit of the American people, this agreement must be destroyed.
— Rita Katz is the director of the SITE Institute, a nonpartisan tax-exempt counterterrorist research organization based in Washington, D.C. Josh Devon is a senior analyst at the SITE Institute.