Two WMD Terrorists, the President’s Daily Briefing, and Lone Wolves

This Time article is designed to be a swan song to Robert Mueller’s career; it builds over almost 6,500 words to the conclusion that, “Most people inside the bureau believe that the blown opportunities to head off 9/11 would not recur today.” Mueller, the article suggests, has fixed the problems that led the FBI to miss 9/11.

But a number of details make the article well worth a very close read. For example, it:

  • Provides an example of the kinds of things that make it into Mueller’s daily brief
  • Describes how Mueller almost quit when the White House ordered the FBI to return materials seized from William Jefferson’s congressional office
  • Describes one of Mueller’s futile attempts to get our supposed partner in the war on terror, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, to arrest Jamal al-Badawi, the USS Cole bomber

Of particular interest, though, is the article’s description of the FBI’s parallel tracking of two alleged WMD terrorists: the Saudi Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari and the white supremacist Kevin William Harpham.

Two men, 1,300 miles apart, had Mueller’s attention when he convened his operations brief on Feb. 17. Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari, a 20-year-old Saudi national, studied chemical engineering at Texas Tech University. Kevin William Harpham, 36, an unemployed Army veteran and avowed white supremacist, lived in a small town near Spokane. On this day the FBI’s interest was a closely guarded secret, but indictments to come would allege that the two men were behind separate plots to set off powerful homemade bombs. Until recently, the FBI had not heard of either man.

The Spokane attack struck without warning on Jan. 17. Shortly before the start of Spokane’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade, city workers found an abandoned backpack along the route. Inside was an explosive core laced with rat poison — an anticoagulant — and surrounded by lead fishing weights. A remote car starter and cell-phone parts were mated in a detonation circuit. The FBI lab in Quantico, Va., recovered DNA, but there was no suspect to test for a match.

Good luck and shoe leather led the FBI to Aldawsari, the Saudi student. One of the trip-wire programs rolled out after 9/11 invited vendors of hazardous goods to report unusual purchases to the feds. Aldawsari went undetected at first as he acquired the ingredients of TNP, an explosive used in World War I artillery shells. Amazon.com filled an order for 3 gal. of concentrated sulfuric acid, and the Georgia-based QualiChem Technologies shipped 10 boxes of nitric acid to a FedEx mail drop. Neither reported the buys. Aldawsari also dodged a student-visa review after flunking out of Texas Tech. Only on Feb. 1, when he ordered phenol, his last ingredient, did Aldawsari trip an alarm. Carolina Biological Supply tipped the FBI’s Charlotte, N.C., field office, and Con-Way Freight, where Aldawsari planned to take delivery, sent word to the Dallas field office by way of the Lubbock police.

By showing the parallel pursuit, Time reveals something disturbing about our country’s pursuit of terrorists. While the President gets briefed on suspected Islamic terrorists, he doesn’t get briefed on suspected right wing terrorists.

Harpham’s plot, if the allegations prove true, turned out to be the more advanced. He had built a powerful bomb and placed it, for maximum carnage, atop a metal bench with a brick wall behind it to focus the blast. The half-complete work of Aldawsari, an Arab whose jihadi aims fit the popular image of a terrorist, received far more public attention. More than a year ago, Mueller raised some eyebrows when he testified that “homegrown and lone-wolf extremists pose an equally serious threat.” But that message did not take root in the body politic or even in the national-security establishment. As the FBI chased the twin terrorist plots all through February, President Obama’s team heard daily reports about Aldawsari’s case but not Harpham’s. Some of Mueller’s lieutenants marveled at the contrast.

Domestic plots are not routinely included in the President’s daily briefing or the interagency threat matrix, an FBI official says, even though “the degree of harm is often greater” than in jihadi terrorist plots.

This is a troubling revelation, particularly in an article that concludes the FBI would have prevented 9/11. It suggests that the FBI–and the President–might still miss a similar attack launched by the next Timothy McVeigh. Billions of dollars and an entire shift of focus, and yet we’re still not watching white terrorists as closely as we watch brown ones.

And on the subject of terrorism investigation, the Time article explains–but does not emphasize–an important detail about the investigation of Aldawsari. As I noted when he was arrested, he was the perfect candidate for a Lone Wolf warrant. He was a non-resident alien and when we got a lead on him he appeared to be (and in fact turned out to be) acting alone. He’s just the kind of self-radicalized non-US person whom the PATRIOT Act’s Lone Wolf provision is meant to target. But, as Acting head of DOJ’s National Security Division Todd Hinnen revealed to Congress in March, we didn’t use the Lone Wolf provision to investigate Aldawsari. Time provides some details about what we did use.

When Mueller convened his executive team on Feb. 17, Aldawsari had been under a microscope for two weeks. Four shifts of agents watched the Saudi engineering student 24 hours a day. Vehicles equipped with StingRay transceivers followed him around greater Dallas, recording his cell-phone calls. Agents had slipped secretly into Aldawsari’s apartment, armed with a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. They inventoried his chemicals, cloned his computer drive and copied a journal handwritten in Arabic.

Hours before that morning’s briefing, Aldawsari had published a blog post alluding to a special celebration of his upcoming 21st birthday. One of his handwritten journal entries, according to a hasty FBI translation, said, “And now, after mastering the English language, learning how to build explosives and continuous planning to target the infidel Americans, it is time for jihad.”

[snip]

In Lubbock, the team that searched Aldawsari’s apartment had been interrupted and did not have time to learn whether he had unpacked his chemicals or whether he had the makings for a high explosive that required no phenol. The hasty retreat also left a gap in electronic surveillance, which nowadays has to include not only phone taps and pinhole cameras but voice-over-Internet, social-network messaging and online-gaming consoles. The Texas plot was unfolding across three e-mail addresses, which sent one another lists of “targets” and “nice targets” and directions for handling TNP. Was it one man? Two? Three?

The search team had to get back in. Mueller had no patience for explanations that agents were doing “pattern-of-life analysis” to find an opening. “You’re not getting it done,” Mueller said. “What are you going to do about it?” Later that day, the sneak-and-peek squad got it done. Then the investigators solved the mystery of the three e-mail addresses: Aldawsari was using all of them, they concluded, to send notes to himself.

While this passage doesn’t explain all of the warrants (or lack thereof) the FBI used to investigate Aldawsari, it’s clear they were able to get a Sneak and Peek warrant (as well as, presumably, warrants to wiretap his communications) without having to resort to the Lone Wolf provision. That seems to support the argument of those like Julian Sanchez, that investigators have the tools they need to find someone like Aldawsari without continued approval of the Lone Wolf provision.

Besides, the Lone Wolf wouldn’t be available to investigate the far more dangerous bomb used in the MLK Day attempt. Maybe we should focus on guarding against terrorist attacks by American citizens rather than trying to extend powers we don’t need to investigate the non-citizens we’re already scrutinizing closely.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

  1. BoxTurtle says:

    It HAS to be a knowing decision to exclude domestic terrorists from the briefing. A cynic might think that Obama does not want to have to address the possible charging of an anti-abortion crazy as a terrorist.

    Perhaps he doesn’t want to have to deal with the rightwing radio reaction. He strikes me as a coward in many ways. Or perhaps this is part of his eleventy dimensional chess that will bring the right wing of the GOP to the polls to vote for him.

    Boxturtle (One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter)

    • DWBartoo says:

      Barack Obama, the pusillanimous fabulist, is a coward, Box Turtle?

      That is about half … “right”.

      (What was that big-cat character in the “Wizard of Oz” called …?)

      ;~DW

      • BoxTurtle says:

        Cowardly Lion vs Cowardly Liar? :-)

        Boxturtle (Though I’d compare Obama more to the wizard. Both fakes)

    • emptywheel says:

      Oh, I’m not sure. First, it might just be a carry over from the Bush Administration. Also, there really is a cognitive blindness to domestic terrorists. When DOJ gives out stats, for example, they almost always give out the one that defines terrorist as international terrorist. So it’s coming from the agencies, as well.

      Whatever the reason, though, it’s a problem, particularly if we believe that the PDB has some role in investigative emphasis.

        • Public says:

          I know that anything other than our Official Stories are not very popular here, but I think it is important to keep in mind that those Official Stories sometimes leave out some crucial information about that actually happened.

          Watch these News Reports about other bombs being found and recovered in Oklahoma City that day.

          The Network News Reports start after the brief introduction:

        • PJEvans says:

          It isn’t that some of them don’t know, it’s that their bosses are political appointees and have to go along with them, or be fired. And when the bosses are idjits (like Shrub) or wanna-be dictators (like Cheney), or toadying to Wall Street (like O), then policies trump reality and investigations get shut down or misdirected.

      • BoxTurtle says:

        Also, there really is a cognitive blindness to domestic terrorists.

        yeahbutwhy? It seems to me as though the blindness is caused by politics, rather than by a lack of awareness. If it was only coming from one place, you could say it was localized stupidity. But like you said, it’s coming from the agencies as well. Which causes me to suspect there is a common directive to avoid that issue coming from the executive branch.

        Boxturtle (But we can count on Holder to stand up to the politics and enforce the law)

        • emptywheel says:

          If it were an executive directive, I don’t think it’d be as effective as whatever causes it. More likely the operative narrative we’re all working under.

          • BoxTurtle says:

            I should have said operational narrative. Much better description of what I think is going on.

            Boxturtle (I doubt even Obama is silly enough to put something like that in writing)

          • DWBartoo says:

            Ah,yes, cultural “limitation” and the myths it embraces.

            It takes something “colossal” to shift such things …

            Unfortunately, whatever that might ultimately be, ’tis very likely some “advantage” will be taken to further certain “ends”, “purposes” or “patterns” or even … “agendas”.

            It is almost akin to ignoring a daily briefing, somehow.

            DW

        • bobschacht says:

          But like you said, it’s coming from the agencies as well. Which causes me to suspect there is a common directive to avoid that issue coming from the executive branch.

          IIRC, during the second Bush administration (2004-2008), some changes were made to the Civil Service that had the effect of politicizing the middle ranks as well as the upper ranks of all government agencies. The Obama administration has been notably slow in fighting for its nominees to replace the higher levels of the civil service (n.b.: Dawn Johnsen, but also many others who don’t make the news)– even when it had control of 60 votes in the Senate. How much greater, then, the task of replacing hundreds, perhaps thousands of Bush-Cheney middle level appointees– especially given the lack of any emphasis on “cleaning house”.

          So, of course, the focus needs to stay on the scary brown people that we don’t know, rather than the crazy wingnut white people, whom we think we know.

          Bob in AZ

          • Larue says:

            Well put Bob, thanks for the reminder of yet another facet of ObamaVille that looks like Bush 3 all over again.

          • earlofhuntingdon says:

            Thanks for pointing out the growing mole problem that has torn up the bureaucratic turf throughout Washington. Cheney controlled the hiring process during his tenure, and installed throughout the federal bureaucracy in DC his own moles. Many political appointees chose to join the civil service rather than lose their access as political appointees at a change in administrations. They’re still there, burrowing and chewing, affecting priorities, morale and effectiveness, and still communicating with their once and future political patrons.

            Mr. Obama, as he has done across the board, shied away from a political fight to unseat them. He hasn’t even nominated a fair number of his own political appointees.

            Nor has he sought to resurrect the competence, fairness, management and staffing of top agencies agencies most corrupted by Cheney, notably including the DoJ. It suffered horribly under Cheney, Libby and Addington and their White House counsels, and under its putative leaders Ashcroft, ‘Fredo and Mukasey. It’s almost as if someone told Eric Holder not to look into the closets, under the floorboards or in the attic, lest he find too many vermin to exterminate.

            Change we can believe in is Tony the Tiger Great, but only if it doesn’t require political resources, time or money, or incur resistance from those who would be harmed or threatened by it. That’s not an adolescent electoral promise, it’s a child view of the world and what it demands of leaders worthy of the name.

        • Larue says:

          “Which causes me to suspect there is a common directive to avoid that issue coming from the executive branch.”

          Absolutely, as it’s ever been the directive among our intel communities and the executive.

          The general theme once the West was won, became one of foreign threats, which roused the public and gave way to legislation that cramped free speech and gave the govt. rights to monitor, arrest and abuse detainees . . . Sedition Acts, etc.

          Once again, with my tinfoil, too much light on domestic efforts would be inconvenient to explain given a domestic false flag incident.

          SO, the domestic stuff is downplayed as our civil rights continue to be eroded more and more. The stage is set.

    • Larue says:

      Not to mention that giving ANY credence or attention to domestic terror issues would shine light, light which might be umm, ‘incovenient’ should another false flag domestic incident take place.

      Tinfoilery, sure . . . but I discount very little anymore from what I’ve seen and learnt in a lifetime.

      Nice read Mz. Wheeler, once again.

      The glaring lack of domestic ‘watch’ efforts for terror while the spying on any that are suspected of ‘ political subversion’ continues says a lot of what our country’s rulers consider their priorities for ‘we the people’.

  2. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The late Tom Bingham, Britain’s former top judge (unusually and in succession, also its former top judge for the separate civil and criminal courts) – one of the finest legal minds anywhere in the last century – allowed himself to observe in retirement that “old-fashioned policing” was more effective in deterring terrorism than corrosive, newfangled intrusions into long-established civil liberties.

    • tejanarusa says:

      Ah, you beat me to it…Not the quoted judge, but the sentimenttriggered by this whole piece….we didn’t really need the Patriot Act’s draconian curtailment of civil libereties, real police work works.

      Sigh.

      (And re Patriot Act: you don’t want to be around me when some teabagger starts bitching “read the bill!” about health care or anyting other than the damn Patriot Act)

    • BoxTurtle says:

      Wow. That’s one PISSED judge.

      Boxturtle (If a normal person lied like that, he’d be led away in cuffs)

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        Referring to the FBI’s conduct in that case, the judge declared:

        The Government’s representations were then, and remain today, blatantly false….

        The Government asserts that it had to mislead the Court regarding the Government’s response to Plaintiffs’ FOIA request to avoid compromising national security. The Government’s argument is untenable. The Government cannot, under any circumstance, affirmatively mislead the Court.

        The Government argued otherwise, that it had a right to lie to the court in the same manner that it had lied to plaintiffs seeking information under FOIA.

        After carefully considering the evidence and arguments of the Government, the Court is convinced that what the Government did here was wrong….The Government has no legitimate basis for deceiving the Court.

        The Government argues that there are times when the interests of national security require the Government to mislead the Court. The Court strongly disagrees. The Government’s duty of honesty to the Court can never be excused, no matter what the circumstance. The Court is charged with the humbling task of defending the Constitution and ensuring that the Government does not falsely accuse people, needlessly invade their privacy or wrongfully deprive them of their liberty. The Court simply cannot perform this important task if the Government lies to it. Deception perverts justice. Truth always promotes it.

        Stirring words, but no sanctions, no additional release of documents. Not much of a slap on the wrist. What will matter more is whether there are other consequences with this or other judges in other cases that are affected by that lost credibility.

      • thatvisionthing says:

        I posted comments earlier here and here re current FOIA case related to Oklahoma, and court papers filed along with an ex-FBI agent affidavit about how the FBI games and hides evidence. I’m not much of a doc dumper diver, but I hope that folks here that are see those.

        The FBI also kept “zero files,” which were reports containing information that the FBI would not generally want disclosed to the defense and which were kept separate from a specific case file. These files were kept internally within the Bureau and typically were not turned over to the prosecution or the defense. Files would be assigned numbers bases on the type of offense or investigation involved, for example, a bank robbery would be assigned a particular number. A letter A after that number would mean highest importance. A zero after that number would mean that the report should go into the “zero” file.

    • fatster says:

      Backatcha, harpie! :) (That’s supposed to be a smile; I’m lousy at even elementary graphics :( )