By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
When FBI counsel Colleen Rowley dropped her bombshell, a now-famous letter to the director, detailing how bureau higher-ups thwarted attempts to investigate accused 20th hijacker, Zacarias Moussaoui, before the September 11 attacks, she set off a firestorm. The scorching produced a mea culpa of sorts in June from FBI Director Robert Mueller and a promise of reform.
Now there‘s another whistle blower telling a similar pre-911 tale. And so far, the FBI has gone to great lengths to silence him.
The Weekly has learned that Chicago-based special agent Robert Wright has accused the agency of shutting down his 1998 criminal probe into alleged terrorist-training camps in Chicago and Kansas City. The apparent goal of the training camps, according to confidential documents obtained by the Weekly, was to recruit and train Palestinian-American youths, who would then slip into Israel. Recruits at these camps reportedly received weapons training and instruction in bomb-making techniques in the early 1990s. The bomb-making curriculum included the sort of explosives later used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. And government documents state that two trainees came from the Oklahoma City area.
One alleged trainer at the terror camps is now fending off a government lawsuit to seize his bank accounts, car and property for alleged money laundering on behalf of the militant group Hamas. So far, no one has been prosecuted for these alleged terrorism-related activities.
The official government position is that Middle Eastern groups had no involvement in the 1995 bombing carried out by Timothy McVeigh, and that conclusion may stand the test of time. The FBI, however, never fully investigated leads suggesting a different verdict, according to law-enforcement and government sources who spoke on condition of anonymity. Congressional investigators are starting to re-examine the entire matter. There’s also another troubling question: Why has the FBI dismissed or ignored evidence linking the Oklahoma City bombing to the Middle East? Is it because these leads are unlikely to pan out or because the agency still has something to hide regarding its own intelligence-gathering lapses?
Robert Wright‘s story is difficult to piece together because he is on government orders to remain silent. And by extension so are his attorneys when it comes to confidential information. Wright has written a book, but the agency won’t let him publish it or even give it to anyone. All of this is in distinct contrast to the free speech and whistle-blower protections offered to Colleen Rowley, general counsel in the FBI Minneapolis office, who got her story out before the agency could silence her.
Wright, a 12-year bureau veteran, has followed proper channels, sending his book off for an internal review and asking for permission to respond to reporters‘ queries. Neither of those efforts panned out, and he has since sued the agency over this publication ban. The best he could do was a May 30 press conference in Washington, D.C., where he told curious reporters that he had a whopper of a tale to tell, if only he could.
Wright did say that FBI bureaucrats “intentionally and repeatedly thwarted his attempts to launch a more comprehensive investigation to identify and neutralize terrorists.” And that “FBI management failed to take seriously the threat of terrorism in the U.S.” Wright was careful not to illegally disclose any confidential details about what he knew, but tears filled his eyes as he apologized to the families of September 11 victims for the Bureau’s mistakes leading up to 911. He also made a tantalizing reference to his removal from a money-laundering case that, he implied, had a direct connection to investigations into terrorism.
This still-active case centers on Mohammed Abdul Hamid Khalil Salah, 49, a naturalized American citizen who was born in Jerusalem. Salah has described himself as a humanitarian who distributed money collected in the U.S. to needy West Bank Palestinian families. He‘s also reportedly worked in Arab-owned grocery stores, as a used car salesman and as a computer analyst for a Chicago-based Islamic charitable group, the Quranic Literacy Institute, which the FBI alleges was involved in money laundering. Institute and Muslim leaders have vehemently denied any wrongdoing.
Both the American and Israeli governments contend that Salah served as a money courier for the terrorist group Hamas. Salah’s attorney in the civil action, Mathew Piers, did not return phone calls from the Weekly. But in published accounts, Piers adamantly denied that his client was a bagman for Hamas. Salah and his wife are still livingin Chicago in a house the government is trying to seize.
In June 1998, the feds filed a civil assets-forfeiture suit against Salah. Such actions are frequently used to seize the money and property of drug dealers. In the Salah case, the U.S. Attorney‘s Office went after personal property and accounts in seven banks, with a total estimated value of $1.5 million. In the civil complaint, the government alleged that Salah intended the funds would “support a conspiracy involving international terrorist activities, [and] the domestic recruitment and training in support of such activities, including extortion, kidnapping and murder of citizens of Israel.”
Attached to the complaint is a 40-page sworn affidavit from agent Wright. In it, Wright details bank accounts, property deals and money transfers designed to support Hamas. But among the most intriguing elements is a reference to Salah’s earlier trial in Israel, which received substantial press coverage in Israel at the time.