Based in DC, Dan covers politics and national security. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine, the Village Voice, the Columbia Journalism Review, and other publications. Email him at dschulman (at) motherjones.com.
The State Department press aide hinted at some kind of bureaucratic snafu. The invites had only gone out at the last minute. As a result, David Samuels (author of this epic piece on Balkan jewel thieves and a Mother Jonescontributor) and I found ourselves the lone journos at a media roundtable featuring a handful of members of the Afghan cabinet who'd accompanied President Hamid Karzai on his visit to Washington this week. Among them were General Abdul Rahim Wardak, the country's dour and barrel-chested defense minister; Wahidullah Shahrani, the youthful looking Minister of Mines; and Omar Zakhilwal, the Minister of Finance.
The event started late and ended abruptly a short time later, with the Afghan officials ushered out of the room by their handlers and shepherded on to their next appointments. And strictly speaking the roundtable portion never actually took place. But for about 15 or minutes or so I was able to chat with officials including Minister of Interior Haneef Atmar and Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, the former Afghan communications minister and currently a top security advisor to Karzai.
I already highlighted Atmar's comments on private security companies, but he was also eager to discuss the strides that have been made in combating corruption—successes, he griped, that have not received "the kind of attention that they should." Over the past year, he said, more than 200 police officers have been prosecuted on corruption-related charges. And he noted there has been a major crackdown on illegal roadblocks set up by police to "toll" (i.e., extort) passerby. "Our main roads and highways are much more conducive to travel." He also pointed to the ministry's fledgling Major Crimes Task Force, set up in partnership with the FBI to pursue high-level corruption cases. "It is a success story in terms of building an organizational framework to address the problem. It has yet to produce the desired result. It's a very, very young organization."
Shortly before departing Kabul to accompany President Hamid Karzai on a state visit to Washington, Interior Minister Haneef Atmar delivered a message to the country's myriad private security operations: You can't get away with murder. Anymore, at least.
Following recent incidents in which two civilians were gunned down, Atmar banned a pair of security companies—Compass and Watan Risk Management—from providing their services on the Kabul-to-Kandahar highway, where the shootings occurred. Additionally, the alleged perpetrators were arrested and are facing prosecution.
In the past, undisciplined and reckless guards, many of them locals drawn from the ranks of militias or moonlighting members of the national police force, have been known to fire wildly and indiscriminately, sometimes wounding or killing civilians; Compass guards were previously blamed for the death of a Canadian soldier. But, when these episodes occur, there has often been little in the way of consequences. As a result, outrage has mounted among Afghans who believe the country's many security firms—some of them glorified militias—operate with impunity. Military officials have expressed concern about the irresponsible actions of security contractors as well, since their conduct directly undermines the principles of counterinsurgency, which calls for protecting the populace even at the expense of protecting the troops.
According to Atmar, times are changing. "The level of tolerance of misconduct when it comes to these organizations is zero," he told me on Thursday, at a State Department event attended by a handful of Afghan cabinet members. "They have had all the time to develop their capacities to professionally provide a service. Now if they fail to do that very, very serious legal action will be taken."
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.