The FBI suffered another debacle last Friday when an Orlando jury returned a not guilty verdict for the widow of Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people and wounded 53 in his attack on Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in June 2016. The biggest terrorism case of the year collapsed largely thanks to FBI misconduct and deceit.
Noor Salman was charged with material support of a foreign terrorist organization and lying to the FBI about knowing about her husband’s pending attack on the nightclub. The FBI vigorously interrogated her for 18 hours, threatening her with the loss of custody of her infant son unless she signed a confession. Salman, who reportedly had an IQ of only 84, initially denied any knowledge but relented and signed a statement composed by an FBI agent.
Federal prosecutors flourished the FBI memo of Salman’s confession as the ultimate proof of her perfidy. But the memo contained false statements and contradictions which even the government could not sweep away. After the trial ended, the jury foreman (who wished to remain anonymous) notified the Orlando Sentinel: “I wish that the FBI had recorded their interviews with Ms. Salman as there were several significant inconsistencies with the written summaries of her statements.”
In this landmark case — as well as in the 2016 interview of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn — the FBI chose to rely on its agents’ ex post facto memos instead of the words and voices of individuals it was investigating. Four years ago, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the FBI and other federal agencies would henceforth record such interviews but little has changed from the J. Edgar Hoover era.
But that was not the biggest blow to federal credibility. On the day after the Pulse club massacre, then-FBI chief James Comey promised: “We will leave no stone unturned and we will work all day and all night to understand the path to that terrible night. … I don’t see anything in reviewing our work that our agents should have done differently, but we’ll look at it in an open and honest way, and be transparent about it.” But Comey provided zero transparency over the following 11 months prior to President Trump’s firing him last May. The FBI even redacted Mateen’s endorsement of ISIS in the initial transcripts they released of his discussions with hostage negotiators on the night of the shooting.
Comey complained of the difficulty of investigating lone wolf terrorists: “Our work is very challenging. We are looking for needles in a nationwide haystack.” But the key player in this case was in the FBI’s back pocket all along.
Eleven days after Noor Salman’s trial began, the Justice Department belatedly admitted that the killer’s father, Seddique Mateen, had been a paid FBI informant for 11 years, starting in 2005. Seddique Mateen, who came to America from Afghanistan, produced a pro-Taliban, anti-American Dari language television program. On the day after the massacre, when asked if the FBI was investigating Seddique Mateen, Comey replied, “no comment.” Comey was likely aware of the FBI’s close relationship to the biggest firearm massacre in U.S. history up to that point.
Prior to his attack, Omar Mateen was practically walking around Florida wearing a sandwich board proclaiming, “FUTURE MASS KILLER.” He had boasted of his connections to terrorists, threatened to have Al Qaeda kill a co-worker’s family, and talked of wanting to be a martyr — when he was not vocally vilifying African-Americans and minorities. Numerous individuals and organizations — including his mosque — warned authorities that he could be a threat to public safety. When FBI officials investigated him in 2013, he repeatedly liedto them. But the FBI swayed the local sheriff’s department to drop its investigation because a “confidential informant” assured FBI agents that Omar Mateen was not a terrorist and would not “go postal or anything like that.” That “confidential informant” may have been Mateen’s father.
The FBI’s cosseting of the father is also triple fishy. The FBI continued relying on Seddique Mateen even after hearing that he was seeking to finance terrorist attacks abroad. Four years before the massacre, the feds received a tip that he was seeking to raise up to $100,000 to bankroll attacks against the Pakistani government.
Indeed, just before Omar Mateen’s attack, his father transferred large sums of money to Turkey and Afghanistan. The FBI has formally permitted its informants to commit more than 5,000 crimes a year in recent times.
Instead of being honest with the American public about the FBI’s role in this case, the Obama administration and Comey rushed to exploit the Pulse Nightclub massacre to extend federal power. Democrats quickly seized upon the death toll to push new gun controllegislation. (Seddique Mateen also vigorously endorsed gun control when he appeared at a Hillary Clinton rally in August 2016.)
Comey said Omar Mateen had been “radicalized at least in part through the Internet” — very convenient for Comey’s campaign to sway Congress to give the FBI new power to seize Internet records of Americans without with a search warrant — the FBI’s “top legislative priority” for 2016. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., led the charge, assuring fellow senators that if the FBI could “more easily determine Internet activity of those suspected of radicalization,” the Orlando massacre might not have happened. Uh … maybe the son was radicalized by watching his father’s TV program?
The FBI’s Orlando debacle follows too many other cases in which the FBI failed to heed obvious warning signs of terrorist attacks — from 9/11 to the Fort Hood, Texas, killing spree to the Boston Marathon bombing to a Garland, Texas, attack spurred by an FBI agent. If not for the federal prosecution of Noor Salman, we likely never would have learned that Seddique Mateen was on the FBI payroll. How many other self-damning bombshells remain hidden in FBI files?
Comey has a new book coming out on April 17 entitled A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership. Unfortunately, there is no reason to presume that either the FBI or Comey has become more honest since the corpses were removed from the Pulse nightclub. When will Washington recognize that a federal agency’s combination of vast power and almost boundless secrecy is no recipe for public safety?
Originally published in USA Today, April 3, 2018.