Dan is Mother Jones' deputy DC bureau chief. He is the New York Times best-selling author of Sons of Wichita(Grand Central Publishing), a biography of the Koch brothers that is now out in paperback. Email him at dschulman (at) motherjones.com.
A report that the feds were asking questions about the alleged Times Square bomber six years ago poses a major mystery.
Daniel SchulmanMay 11, 2010 6:00 AM
There was really nothing memorable about the 24-year-old Pakistani guy whom George LaMonica bought his Norwalk, Connecticut, condo from in the spring of 2004. Had it not been for what happened shortly after he moved in, LaMonica might have forgotten him entirely. LaMonica says he arrived home one day to find the business card of a detective working with an FBI-led task force. When he later spoke to the investigator, he says, he was asked about the condo's previous owner. The potential significance of this only became apparent years later, when the man in question, Faisal Shahzad, was arrested for the failed plot to detonate a car bomb in New York's Times Square.
LaMonica's account, if accurate, raises some crucial questions: Why were the feds sniffing around Shahzad six years ago? Did they have suspicions about him that should have been acted upon before he parked a bomb-laden Pathfinder in the heart of New York City? As in the Fort Hood shooting and the bungled Christmas Day bombing, did government agencies possess pieces of the puzzle, yet fail to grasp the big picture?
According to CBS, from 1999 to 2008 Shahzad's name appeared on a government immigration watch list known as the Traveler Enforcement Compliance System after he brought "approximately $80,000 cash or cash instruments" into the US. It's unclear if this is related to the inquiry LaMonica describes, which remains a major mystery—all the more so because the FBI maintains it has no record of interviewing LaMonica. Further, spokesman Paul Bresson denied that any investigation involving Shahzad took place in that timeframe.
The mystery deepens. Yesterday I highlighted an intriguing paragraph buried in a New York Timespiece on alleged Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad. It described how George LaMonica, who purchased his Norwalk, Connecticut condo from Shahzad in 2004, had received a visit by investigators from the national Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) shortly after moving in. According to LaMonica, they questioned him about the transaction and about Shahzad. The JTTF is the same FBI-led interagency unit that caught Shahzad as he attempted to flee the country to Dubai on Monday—and, if the Times account is accurate, the implications could be significant. It suggests that Shahzad was on the radar of federal counterterrorism investigators at least six years before he parked his bomb-laden Pathfinder on West 45th Street. Recently, the intelligence and law enforcement communities have been criticized for possessing vital intelligence yet failing to put together the pieces when it came to Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan and underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. How long the FBI has been aware of Shahzad and what brought JTTF investigators to LaMonica's doorstep seems like a major unanswered question.
So I asked FBI spokesman Paul Bresson whether LaMonica's account was accurate and, if it was, why JTTF investigators had been asking questions about Shahzad back in 2004. Here's where things get strange. "We have no record of interviewing him," Bresson replied in an email.
That didn't mean it didn't happen, so I followed up:
Was Shahzad the subject of an earlier investigation that would have entailed visiting people like LaMonica? And is the FBI following up to confirm whether or not the JTTF did in fact interview LaMonica?
The answer is no to your first question. I would not comment on your second question.
What to make of this? I have a call and email in to LaMonica to see what he has to say. I'll update the post when I hear back.
UPDATE: LaMonica maintains that he was contacted by a detective for an FBI-led task force. More here.
How long has Faisal Shahzad been on the radar of federal counterterrorism investigators? Read most press accounts and it sounds like the terrorism suspect, who's admitted to the failed Times Square bombing, never raised any red flags up until the day he parked a propane, fireworks, and fertilizer-laden Pathfinder on West 45th Street and fled the scene. For instance, as Timereported earlier, "…So far, the only indication that Shahzad had raised any suspicion among U.S. officials is the fact that he underwent secondary screening at the airport upon his return to the U.S. earlier this year."
But that may not be true. Shahzad, who lived in the US on and off since 1999, apparently drew the scrutiny of federal investigators long before the failed bombing that led to his dramatic arrest at Kennedy Airport. According to an intriguing paragraph buried deep in a New York Timesstory published Wednesday, members of the national Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), the same FBI-led interagency group whose agents hunted down and apprehended Shahzad on Monday, were keeping tabs on him as many as six years ago. The Times reported:
George LaMonica, a 35-year-old computer consultant, said he bought his two-bedroom condominium in Norwalk, Conn., from Mr. Shahzad for $261,000 in May 2004. A few weeks after he moved in, Mr. LaMonica said, investigators from the national Joint Terrorism Task Force interviewed him, asking for details of the transaction and for information about Mr. Shahzad. It struck Mr. LaMonica as unusual, but he said detectives told him they were simply "checking everything out."
If the Times' account is correct, why did JTTF investigators zero in on Shahzad back then?
So far, the media attention has focused largely on the lapses that lead to Shahzad's near-escape—the fact that he eluded the federal agents who'd been surveilling him and was able to buy a plane ticket and board his flight even after his name had been added to the no-fly list. But a bigger question may be how long the feds had Shahzad in their sights and how he came to be there to begin with. The matter was addressed briefly at Wednesday's White House press briefing, when ABC News correspondent Jake Tapper asked Robert Gibbs about the passage in the Times story:
TAPPER: And do you have any response to reports that this individual Shahzad, Faisal Shahzad -- the Joint Terrorism Task Force did know about him, had been alerted about him years before? Is there any new information you have about it?
GIBBS: Not that I'm aware of. No, not that I'm aware of. I have not seen that report. Let me take a look at it and see where the best place is --
I have a call into the FBI for comment. I'll update this post when I hear back.
UPDATE: Well, I heard back. Only the FBI's response deepened the mystery rather than solving it. You'll see what I mean.
How one of the Senate's most notorious bill-blockers nearly derailed a resolution honoring the holiday and its founder.
Daniel SchulmanApr. 27, 2010 6:00 AM
The congressional resolution seemed about as innocuous as they come. It commemorated the 40th anniversary of Earth Day and honored its late founder, Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisc.). But in this highly politically charged Congress, even a minor measure can touch off a legislative scuffle. Such was the case last week, when one of the Senate's most notorious bill-blockers, Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn, almost derailed the Earth Day resolution.
Coburn is among the Senate's most prolific users of the hold, an informal procedure that effectively allows a single lawmaker to hold legislation hostage by preventing it from reaching a full vote. In the past, he's employed this tactic to stall a range of bills, including measures to provide back pay to furloughed federal workers, to aid peace efforts in Northern Uganda, and to create a State Department office to coordinate reconstruction efforts in conflict zones. When Coburn blocks a bill, his reasons are typically fiscal. "Dr. Coburn routinely puts holds on bills, even bills he supports, if they support new money and are not offset," his spokesman, John Hart, toldMother Jones earlier this year.