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.

Published June 22, 2004 9:06PM (EDT)

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."

In 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.

By Mary Jacoby

Mary Jacoby is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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