Minh Quang Pham: FBI Continues Creating Terror Stories Assisted by Unrecorded Interviews

Minh Quang Pham, whom I dubbed AQAP’s “graphic artist of mass destruction” because he was busted for providing graphic design skills to AQAP, got sentenced today; neither FBI nor SDNY have announced his sentence but it will be between 30 and 50 years in prison.

The government, as it tends to do, has submitted a bunch of documents as part of the sentencing process to inflate the magnitude of Pham’s acts, which largely consist of carrying a Kalashnikov he wasn’t really trained to use and helping Samir Khan make Inspire look prettier. With the documents, DOJ suggests Pham might have attacked Heathrow if he hadn’t been stopped when he was. Materials submitted as part of the sentencing process include:

The FBI 302s have the most detail, including that Awlaki gave Pham a “clean” computer that, as described, was not clean at all (a forensics report that is sealed in the docket reportedly found it had shared data with a computer that Warsame had been caught with) and the claim that Awlaki gave Pham a phone and an email account to contact him with — or to provide to new AQAP recruits (the story varies) — in the future. One 302 provides the rather incredible detail that “the email account AULAQI provided might have been a Hotmail account.”

We’re to believe that Awlaki, a guy who learned he was being wiretapped in November 2009, had been pursued using all resources of the US government for a year and a half, and who otherwise had a sophisticated understanding of US surveillance, was still using a Hotmail account in June 2011.

The final 302 (I don’t think the previous 3 include start and stop times, which is a telling omission) provides details of what Scott Shane has described as proof Anwar Awlaki was acting as a bomb making trainer close to the end of his life, based on the description of him teaching Pham, in a single day, “how to mix chemicals to make an explosive powder” that Pham used to detonate a tin can that “generated enough force to launch the tin can away from PHAM and into the air.” This was the training, the FBI implies, that AQAP gave Pham to prepare him to attack Heathrow Airport.

Here’s the thing, though: FBI didn’t record any of those interviews, in spite of an explicit policy presuming FBI will record custodial interviews that went into effect on July 11, 2014. There are exceptions FBI might, in a stretch, be claiming here (that because Pham was not yet in a formal detention center, he was not in custody, or that it was a national intelligence collecting interview that is nevertheless being used against him in sentencing; I’ve got an email in with the FBI to find out what their explanation is). But this seems like a clear-cut case, where, for their own credibility, FBI should have recorded the interviews.

Especially since Pham says they’re inaccurate.

For four days I have willfully sat with the agents to confess my association with AL-QAIDA + to make an appeal to the government for compassion. Brian said: “we are the best representatives to the government for you.”

[snip]

The agenst [sic] had the opportunity to take recording but for some reason they did not do so. I only receive the FBI statements around couple months after my interviews. I then realize that they have omitted possibly 30 – 40% of what I’ve said, misunderstood many points + added some information I did not say. Had there been a recording, it would have shown a different picture. Had they been sincere in what they said about being “the best representatives to the government,” they would have shown me the draft of the statement for any needed correction before publishing it or have the interview recorded which would have revealed all the questions + answers.

Initially I didn’t want to tell them about the airport plot because it was something occurred in YEMEN which I never intended to do. I only want to leave YEMEN + had to accept a foreign operation. I told them that Imam ANWAR AL-AWLAQI (who was killed in a drone strike in Sept 2011) wanted me to do. The reason why I told the agents is because I felt pressured due to MATT posing the same question for 4 days, + on the 4th day he said: “Is there something they told you to do but decided not to?”

[snip]

Later at the 5th interview, the prosecutor asks me if I intended to carry out the plot, Matt intervene + said “at that point did you accept it? I made it clear that I did not intended [sic] it but I only accept it + was willing to accept any plot to go home.

The expression I got from the was that, they were trying to paint a picture oof me of intending to return to carry out the plot + had I not been arrested, I would have carried out a suicide operation at Heathrow Airport.

Obviously Pham has good reason to want to insinuate he would never have conducted the plot (but then, he was free in the UK for 5 months and didn’t take any steps to do so, not even obtaining acetone from his sister’s nail salon). Then again, obviously the FBI has good reason to want to claim that Pham was more than the graphic artist who was never really trained in fighting that the other records show him to be.

The thing is, there’s no evidence in the record that makes this Heathrow attack look credible. There are some other really funny details about this story that I hope to return to. But I’m sure the story worked to ensure Pham would spend most of the rest of his life in a US SuperMax.

Update: I guess this is why they didn’t announce Pham’s sentence: Judge Alison Nathan delayed sentencing because of conflicting stories over whether Pham really intended to attack Heathrow, or whether he used that as a way to get out of Yemen (though she reportedly is inclined to side with the government). I think this is a sound result: the government actually hasn’t proven this attack was real (again, I have questions about whether even Awlaki designed it to be real). Moreover, Pham will get 30 years in any case.

The FBI might have a more (or less — who knows!!) credible case had they taped these interviews. Now they have to make their case in court.

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.

3 replies
  1. JonKnowsNothing says:

    @Bari

    Our country still pisses on itself…

    We have achieved Max State of Global Pissedoffedness.

  2. JonKnowsNothing says:

    Do you think the MATT mentioned in Minh Quang Pham’s statement is the same Matt who interrogated Sharif Mobley in hospital in Yemen after Mobley was abducted and shot?

    Is it possible that Brian is “Khan from the DoD” who was with Matt during the Mobley interrogation?

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