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How secure is the Department of Homeland Security?

Senior Home­land Secu­ri­ty offi­cial Faisal Gill failed to dis­close that he worked for an Amer­i­can Mus­lim leader now in jail on ter­ror­ism charges.

By Mary Jaco­by
June 22, 2004

WASHINGTON The pol­i­cy direc­tor for the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty’s intel­li­gence divi­sion was briefly removed from his job in March when the Fed­er­al Bureau of Inves­ti­ga­tion dis­cov­ered he had failed to dis­close his asso­ci­a­tion with Abdu­rah­man Alam­ou­di, a jailed Amer­i­can Mus­lim leader. Alam­ou­di was indict­ed last year on ter­ror­ism-relat­ed mon­ey-laun­der­ing charges and now claims to have been part of a plot to assas­si­nate Sau­di Ara­bi­a’s Crown Prince Abdul­lah.

After a flur­ry of inter­a­gency meet­ings, how­ev­er, Home­land Secu­ri­ty decid­ed to leave the pol­i­cy direc­tor, Faisal Gill, in place, accord­ing to two gov­ern­ment offi­cials with knowl­edge of the Alam­ou­di inves­ti­ga­tion. A White House polit­i­cal appointee with close ties to Repub­li­can pow­er bro­ker Grover Norquist and no appar­ent back­ground in intel­li­gence, Gill has access to top-secret infor­ma­tion on the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of Amer­i­ca’s sea­ports, avi­a­tion facil­i­ties and nuclear pow­er plants to ter­ror­ist attacks.

The FBI raised con­cerns with Home­land Secu­ri­ty offi­cials in March after dis­cov­er­ing that Gill had failed to list on secu­ri­ty clear­ance doc­u­ments his work in 2001 with the Amer­i­can Mus­lim Coun­cil, the offi­cials said. The advo­ca­cy group, which was con­trolled by Alam­ou­di, has been under scruti­ny in an inves­ti­ga­tion of ter­ror­ism financ­ing. The lead agent in that inves­ti­ga­tion works for an arm of Home­land Secu­ri­ty. Gill’s omis­sion of the infor­ma­tion on his “Stan­dard Form 86” nation­al secu­ri­ty ques­tion­naire is a poten­tial felony vio­la­tion. There is no evi­dence, how­ev­er, that Gill has tak­en any action to com­pro­mise nation­al secu­ri­ty.

A Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty spokes­woman would not com­ment on Gill or when he was hired, except to say that a “thor­ough inves­ti­ga­tion” by the depart­men­t’s Office of Secu­ri­ty found no basis to deny the 32-year-old lawyer a secu­ri­ty clear­ance. Among Gill’s polit­i­cal patrons is Grover Norquist, head of Amer­i­cans for Tax Reform and a key ally of the White House. Gill list­ed Norquist as a ref­er­ence on employ­ment doc­u­ments, the gov­ern­ment offi­cials said. Gill also worked in 2001 for a Mus­lim polit­i­cal out­reach orga­ni­za­tion that Norquist co-found­ed with a for­mer top aide to Alam­ou­di. Norquist did not respond to phone calls, a fax and an e‑mail seek­ing com­ment.

The Home­land Secu­ri­ty spokes­woman, Michelle Petro­vich, declined to say what qual­i­fi­ca­tions or back­ground Gill has for his senior posi­tion in the depart­men­t’s Infor­ma­tion Analy­sis and Infra­struc­ture Pro­tec­tion divi­sion. Cit­ing pri­va­cy con­cerns, Petro­vich also declined to make pub­lic any of the doc­u­ments Gill sub­mit­ted for gov­ern­ment employ­ment, includ­ing his Stan­dard Form 86, the ques­tion­naire Gill had to fill out to receive a secu­ri­ty clear­ance. “It’s stan­dard pro­ce­dure across the gov­ern­ment not to release per­son­al back­ground infor­ma­tion on employ­ees. I did check on that,” Petro­vich told me.

In response, I read to her the Pri­va­cy Act state­ment that is print­ed on the front of the form, which can be down­loaded from gov­ern­ment Web sites. It says: “We may share this infor­ma­tion ... with the news media and the gen­er­al pub­lic when the dis­clo­sure would be in the pub­lic inter­est.”

Petro­vich said: “OK, but I also have to tell you that that is trumped by Free­dom of the Infor­ma­tion Act. There’s a spe­cial excep­tion. That’s a fed­er­al law.”

“What is trumped?

“The Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act.”

“Trumps what?”

“Well, I can’t see what you’re read­ing from, so I just real­ly don’t know.”

Through Petro­vich, Gill sent word that he would speak with me “on back­ground,” mean­ing I could not iden­ti­fy him by name unless he was allowed to approve his quotes before pub­li­ca­tion. I did not agree to the con­di­tions, and Gill declined to answer ques­tions oth­er­wise. The peo­ple with knowl­edge of the mat­ter have been grant­ed anonymi­ty because they risk being fired if they are iden­ti­fied.

Mark Zaid, a lawyer in pri­vate prac­tice in Wash­ing­ton who spe­cial­izes in secu­ri­ty clear­ance cas­es, said it would be unusu­al for an agency to over­look omis­sions on a secu­ri­ty clear­ance appli­ca­tion. “Most agen­cies get real­ly upset and sus­pi­cious and act antag­o­nis­ti­cal­ly toward appli­cants if they find they with­held infor­ma­tion,” he said, adding that a minor vio­la­tion might be for­giv­en. But he said if the issue con­cerned fail­ing to list employ­ment at “a ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tion or one that’s being inves­ti­gat­ed, all sorts of red flags would go up.”

Gill’s place­ment in the sen­si­tive intel­li­gence job has alarmed gov­ern­ment offi­cials because it fits the oper­at­ing the­o­ry of pros­e­cu­tors and inves­ti­ga­tors that Alam­ou­di was part of a long-term scheme by Islam­ic extrem­ists to place friend­ly, if per­haps unwit­ting, asso­ciates in key U.S. gov­ern­ment posi­tions.

A doc­u­ment seized in a 1995 raid of a close Alam­ou­di friend and polit­i­cal ally, for­mer Uni­ver­si­ty of South Flori­da pro­fes­sor Sami Al-Ari­an, out­lined a plan to “infil­trate the sen­si­tive intel­li­gence agen­cies or the embassies in order to col­lect infor­ma­tion and build close rela­tion­ships with the peo­ple in charge of these estab­lish­ments.” The unsigned doc­u­ment, which author­i­ties believe was authored by Al-Ari­an in part because it was found among his papers, added: “We are in the cen­ter which leads the con­spir­a­cy against our Islam­ic world ... Our pres­ence in North Amer­i­ca gives us a unique oppor­tu­ni­ty to mon­i­tor, explore and fol­low up.” It instruct­ed mem­bers of the “cen­ter,” thought to refer to an Islam­ic think tank that Al-Ari­an found­ed, to “col­lect infor­ma­tion from those rel­a­tives and friends who work in sen­si­tive posi­tions in gov­ern­ment.”

Al-Ari­an is in a Flori­da prison await­ing tri­al next year on charges he was the North Amer­i­can leader of the Pales­tin­ian Islam­ic Jihad, a group that has tar­get­ed Israel with sui­cide bomb­ings. He denies all the charges. But inves­ti­ga­tors believe Al-Ari­an and Alam­ou­di were part of a broad­er polit­i­cal Islam­ic move­ment in the Unit­ed States that con­nects sym­pa­thiz­ers of Hamas, Islam­ic Jihad and al-Qai­da.

This move­ment, the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood, is the umbrel­la under which ter­ror groups have forged “a sig­nif­i­cant degree of coop­er­a­tion and coor­di­na­tion with­in our bor­ders,” for­mer White House coun­tert­er­ror­ism chief Richard Clarke told the Sen­ate Bank­ing Com­mit­tee last year. “The com­mon link here is the extrem­ist Mus­lim Broth­er­hood — all of these orga­ni­za­tions are descen­dants of the mem­ber­ship and ide­ol­o­gy of the Mus­lim Broth­ers.” Alam­ou­di, for exam­ple, has spo­ken open­ly of his admi­ra­tion for the anti-Israeli Hamas, which evolved from a branch of the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood. Al-Ari­an’s cir­cle of asso­ciates, mean­while, over­laps with mem­bers of the Brook­lyn, N.Y., pre­cur­sor to al-Qai­da that was respon­si­ble for the 1993 World Trade Cen­ter bomb­ing.

The ties among Alam­ou­di, the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood and Gill help explain why offi­cials are con­cerned about whether Gill was ade­quate­ly vet­ted. These rela­tion­ships are dif­fi­cult to under­stand with­out immer­sion in the indict­ments, court tran­scripts and case exhibits; the con­cerned offi­cials said they fear that busy polit­i­cal oper­a­tives in the admin­is­tra­tion sim­ply do not grasp the nation­al-secu­ri­ty issues at stake.

“There’s an over­all denial in the admin­is­tra­tion that the agen­da being pushed by Norquist might be a prob­lem,” one offi­cial said. “It’s so absurd that a Grover Norquist per­son could even be close to some­thing like this. That’s real­ly what’s so insid­i­ous.”

1999, a group of reform­ers oust­ed Alam­ou­di as AMC exec­u­tive direc­tor amid ques­tions about the group’s opaque finances and mys­te­ri­ous Mid­dle East­ern fund­ing sources. Alam­ou­di took a posi­tion at the affil­i­at­ed Amer­i­can Mus­lim Foun­da­tion but remained in con­trol of the AMC through friend­ly board mem­bers, the reform­ers said. “I had con­cerns about the reluc­tance to reveal infor­ma­tion about the finances. They said they’re not doing well, that they need­ed more mon­ey, but I looked at their office [in Wash­ing­ton], and it was very big,” said one of the would-be reform­ers, Ikram Khan, a sur­geon in Las Vegas. Khan said he resigned from the AMC board when his friend, Nazir Kha­ja, a Pak­istani-Amer­i­can physi­cian from Cal­i­for­nia who was try­ing to open the group’s books, told him that Alam­ou­di was not coop­er­at­ing. “I said, ‘If this is the case, I can­not con­tin­ue to serve in the group,’ and I sent in my res­ig­na­tion let­ter,” Khan said.

Then, last August, a man with a Libyan accent left a suit­case with $340,000 in cash for Alam­ou­di out­side his hotel room in Lon­don, accord­ing to the Octo­ber 2003 indict­ment of the Amer­i­can Mus­lim leader. Alam­ou­di was then arrest­ed upon his return to the Unit­ed States, the indict­ment said. The Alam­ou­di mys­tery deep­ened on June 10, when the New York Times and the Wall Street Jour­nal report­ed that he had told author­i­ties he was part of an alleged plot by Libyan leader Moam­mar Gad­hafi to assas­si­nate Crown Prince Abdul­lah, the Sau­di leader. Now, the U.S. Jus­tice Depart­ment is exam­in­ing whether Alam­ou­di was con­spir­ing with a Lon­don group the Sau­di gov­ern­ment says is linked to Osama bin Laden.

“Who is Abdu­rah­man Alam­ou­di? We real­ly don’t know,” one of the con­cerned gov­ern­ment offi­cials said. “So how can we say there is not a prob­lem with his for­mer aide? He [Gill] has access to infor­ma­tion about all our vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties — avi­a­tion, ports. He knows what is pro­tect­ed and what is not.”

The Home­land Secu­ri­ty spokes­woman, Petro­vich, declined to dis­cuss these issues. Instead, she released this state­ment: “Pri­or to Faisal Gill’s employ­ment with the depart­ment, the [inter­nal] Office of Secu­ri­ty went to great lengths to inves­ti­gate his back­ground and ensure there were no poten­tial con­flicts or inap­pro­pri­ate activ­i­ties in rela­tion to Mr. Gill. Fol­low­ing a thor­ough inves­ti­ga­tion, we found that Mr. Gill exceed­ed all require­ments set forth by the depart­men­t’s Office of Secu­ri­ty for access to clas­si­fied infor­ma­tion, as pre­scribed by the intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty, that allows him to con­duct his day-to-day duties for the depart­ment.”

Yet some offi­cials remain con­cerned that Gill appar­ent­ly enjoys the polit­i­cal pro­tec­tion of Norquist, the archi­tect of the 1994 Repub­li­can elec­tion sweep that brought Geor­gia Repub­li­can Newt Gin­grich to pow­er as House speak­er. Norquist speaks of “crush­ing” his polit­i­cal oppo­nents and dis­miss­es those who don’t agree with his anti-tax, anti-gov­ern­ment agen­da as “Bol­she­viks.” His pow­er derives from a for­mi­da­ble coali­tion of evan­gel­i­cal, busi­ness and oth­er con­ser­v­a­tive groups that he con­trols to push favored GOP issues, as well as from his close rela­tion­ship with White House polit­i­cal chief Karl Rove.

In 1998, Norquist and a for­mer deputy to Alam­ou­di at the AMC co-found­ed the non­prof­it Islam­ic Insti­tute as part of a dri­ve to win Mus­lim vot­ers for Bush in 2000. Alam­ou­di donat­ed $35,000 to the insti­tute, records show. Soon, the Islam­ic Insti­tute, the AMC and Al-Ari­an were all work­ing togeth­er on a top pri­or­i­ty for Amer­i­can Mus­lims: an end to the use of clas­si­fied intel­li­gence to jail nonci­t­i­zens as nation­al-secu­ri­ty threats. Al-Ari­an’s broth­er-in-law had been jailed on the basis of such secret evi­dence link­ing him to Pales­tin­ian Islam­ic Jihad, and Al-Ari­an lob­bied heav­i­ly on Capi­tol Hill to end the prac­tice. In Octo­ber 2000, through the efforts of Norquist and Rove, Bush came out against secret evi­dence in a debate with Al Gore, and the AMC endorsed Bush for pres­i­dent. Al-Ari­an would lat­er claim that the Mus­lim votes he round­ed up for Bush in Flori­da helped decide the elec­tion.

Gill was in the mid­dle of these advo­ca­cy efforts. As direc­tor of gov­ern­ment affairs at Norquist’s Islam­ic Insti­tute, Gill lob­bied against the use of secret evi­dence, accord­ing to a May 2001 release on the insti­tute’s Web site. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Gill was quot­ed in news arti­cles as a spokesman for the AMC. A Wash­ing­ton Post arti­cle from May 2001, mean­while, iden­ti­fied Gill as a spokesman for the “fledg­ling” Tax­pay­ers Alliance of Prince William Coun­ty, Va., which is affil­i­at­ed with Norquist’s Amer­i­cans for Tax Reform. Accord­ing to the Post arti­cle, Norquist was slat­ed to appear with Gill at an anti-tax ral­ly.

Gill is one of sev­er­al for­mer Alam­ou­di asso­ciates who have shuf­fled in recent years among Norquist’s oper­a­tions, the AMC, and gov­ern­ment and pol­i­tics. They include Abdul­wa­hab Alkeb­si, a for­mer exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Islam­ic Insti­tute and a spokesman for the AMC who is now a pro­gram direc­tor for the Nation­al Endow­ment for Democ­ra­cy, where he is respon­si­ble for admin­is­ter­ing mil­lions of dol­lars in grant mon­ey for Iraq. What’s more, in 2003 Norquist held a fundrais­er at his Capi­tol Hill home for Alam­oudi’s for­mer lawyer, Kamal Nawash, who was run­ning for a Vir­ginia state Sen­ate seat. And Norquist’s co-founder of the Islam­ic Insti­tute, for­mer AMC deputy direc­tor Khaled Saf­fu­ri, works close­ly with the White House on Mus­lim out­reach issues.

These out­reach efforts have put Norquist in an unusu­al defen­sive posi­tion. For­mer Bush speech­writer David Frum, con­ser­v­a­tive inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist Ken­neth Tim­mer­man, and Cen­ter for Secu­ri­ty Pol­i­cy pres­i­dent Frank Gaffney, among oth­ers, have crit­i­cized Norquist’s alliances.

Gaffney did not respond to my request for an inter­view. But his feud with Norquist spilled into pub­lic view in Jan­u­ary 2003 at the Con­ser­v­a­tive Polit­i­cal Action Con­fer­ence near Wash­ing­ton. Accord­ing to an account in the Nation­al Review, Gaffney told the con­fer­ence-goers: “I’m sor­ry to say there is an active and, to a con­sid­er­able degree suc­cess­ful, [rad­i­cal Mus­lim] polit­i­cal oper­a­tion aimed not least at the Bush White House.” Norquist respond­ed by call­ing Gaffney a big­ot and bar­ring him from an influ­en­tial meet­ing of con­ser­v­a­tives that Norquist holds on Wednes­days in Wash­ing­ton.

And there are oth­er unex­plained threads con­nect­ing Mus­lim lead­ers who are under inves­ti­ga­tion to Norquist’s influ­ence-ped­dling oper­a­tion. In 2000 and 2001, for exam­ple, a firm with which Norquist has been reg­is­tered as a lob­by­ist, Janus-Mer­ritt Strate­gies, report­ed that Alam­ou­di had paid the com­pa­ny a total of $40,000 for lob­by­ing on human rights issues and Malaysia. But in a Dec. 17, 2001, let­ter to the sec­re­tary of the U.S. Sen­ate, which admin­is­ters pub­lic lob­by­ing records, a man­ag­ing part­ner of the firm wrote that Janus-Mer­ritt had erred in iden­ti­fy­ing Alam­ou­di as its client. The let­ter said the actu­al client was anoth­er Mus­lim leader who could be reached at 555 Grove St. in Hern­don, Va.

Three months lat­er, dozens of fed­er­al agents, with their guns drawn, burst through the doors of that office build­ing in Hern­don, seiz­ing evi­dence in the Unit­ed States’ ongo­ing inves­ti­ga­tion of inter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ist finan­cial net­works.


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