Emails from prosecutors in a court case involving the wife of the Pulse nightclub shooter revealed that the FBI had used the shooter’s father, Seddique Mateen, as an informant periodically between 2005 and June 2016. The attack on the Orlando nightclub, which claimed 49 lives — at the time the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history — took place in June 2016.
This raises a natural question: Did Seddique Mateen lie to the FBI to protect his son?
If you’re insane, this leads to another question: Was there a Comey-Mueller-Clinton conspiracy here? This theory, dumb as it is, has been making its rounds in conservative media in an effort to somehow discredit or incriminate the investigation into Donald Trump’s connections to Russia. That’s how frightened the right wing is of Mueller.
But this isn’t all to say that the FBI should be let off the hook for how it handled the Orlando shooter. So let’s have a serious look at what the FBI did here, why they did it, and what they might have done wrong. Only then will we look at how completely insane it is to connect this in any way to the Trump-Russia investigation.
What The FBI Did
The news came out during a criminal case against the Pulse shooter’s wife, Noor Salman, who is accused of knowing her husband had planned to carry out the attack. (Salman’s defense attorneys claim she is intellectually unfit to be implicated in the crime.) An email from prosecutors said the shooter’s father was an FBI informant “at various points” between January 2005 and June 2016. The father, born in Afghanistan, said in the days following the shooting that he was “not aware” his son was a terrorist, but acknowledged the mass shooting itself was an act of terror. “This is the worst thing that can happen for a father to see a son act like this,” he said.
The shooter himself had been “assessed” twice by the FBI, in 2013, for connections to terrorism. According to reports from the subsequent investigation into the shooting, FBI agents told an unidentified confidential informant they were investigating the man who would become the shooter. That informant reportedly “became very upset” that the FBI was looking into this person. Eventually the FBI closed its inquiry. No one has confirmed that the anonymous informant was the shooter’s father, but Salman’s lawyers said they can reasonably conclude that Seddique Mateen “played a significant role” in the FBI’s decision to close the inquiry into his son when they did.
Here we should note that FBI had looked into the shooter twice, and the unidentified informant has so far been connected only to the first inquiry. (It never reached the stages of a full-blown investigation, but was a lower-level inquiry the FBI calls an “assessment.” Assessments have a smaller scope and fewer investigative tools.) The FBI opened a second assessment into the man who would become the shooter, but the informant hasn’t been connected to that inquiry. After the shooting, according to then-director James Comey, the FBI had “connected the shooter with a confidential source, obtained recorded conversations, and monitored some of his communications.” The agent overseeing that inquiry testified that they’d gotten one of the shooter’s co-workers to record his conversations with the suspect, who reportedly had told co-workers about sympathies to terrorist organizations and violent tactics.The FBI interviewed the shooter twice in 2013 before closing the inquiry. because the shooter never repeated the remarks.
Two months later, though, a man who attended the same mosque as the shooter carried out a suicide bombing in Syria on behalf of the al-Nusra Front, an affiliate of al Qaeda. The FBI took another look into the man who would become the shooter, but still found no substantial connection.
Add to this the fact that the FBI was using the shooter’s father as an informant at the time, and things start to seem weird. How badly did the FBI screw this up?
How Counter-terrorism Investigations Work
The FBI has a huge Counterterrorism Division, comprising an unknown but obviously enormous number of agents. It has four branches: Operations I; Operations II; Analysis; and Operational Support. The agency must filter thousands of tips and look into thousands and thousands of possible connections. As Comey put it, they’re not just looking for a needle in a haystack, but “pieces of hay that will become needles.” It’s unimaginably difficult, and the surveillance tools available to them are limited by federal law and the U.S. Constitution.
The Fourth Amendment says that American citizens can’t be arrested without breaking the law. That is, no pre-crime. However, if the person agrees to carry out an attack or plot, or to travel or support a terrorist group. they can be arrested for providing material support to terrorists.
As a result, the FBI tries to use informants and undercover agents to lure suspects into tipping their hand.
But we know the shooter lied to the FBI in his initial interview, and thanks to Trump-Russia, we all are now well aware that lying to the FBI is a crime. But the FBI only charges someone with lying if there’s an underlying crime. The FBI said they had no underlying crime here, just the lie itself. You can imagine the kinds of abuse this power would lead to if there were no limits: Lie about anything to the FBI and you get arrested? Sounds Orwellian. They could arrest pretty much anyone they ever spoke with.
I mean, the FBI can already pretty much surveil anyone they want to. Further, FBI guidelines say the agency must shut down such preliminary investigations if they turn up no evidence of a crime after six months. (This should worry Trump defenders.) And yes: we need these limits on police power. Imagine the FBI investigating you for the rest of your life because someone told them they thought you might be up to something suspicious.
Still, the FBI took the case seriously, and even had the shooter’s boss wear a wire. The agency also got an extension on that initial assessment, but closed it after ten months. It’s sure hard to reconcile these efforts with any conspiracy to allow the shooting to happen.
Then, get this: After the Orlando attack, the FBI opened an investigation into the elder Mateen for making money transfers to Turkey and Afghanistan that year. The investigation arose from evidence the FBI discovered in Mateen’s home after his son’s attack. Reportedly one of the transfers happened weeks before the shooting, so puff on that one, conspiracy theorists.
It seems there was a massive failure here. Comey, in testimony just after the shooting, dug in his heels to defend his agents. In a sentence that resonates with his assessment of his decision to go public with the second Clinton investigation, Comey said, “We’re going to look hard at our own work to see whether there is something we should have done differently,” but “so far, the honest answer is, I don’t think so. I don’t see anything, in reviewing our work, that our agents should have done differently.”
In hindsight, this seems ridiculous. But maybe it’s not quite so bad. Most if not all the things the FBI could have done differently in its assessment of the shooter are things I wouldn’t want it to have the blanket power to do to anyone it wants. Charging anyone with lying, for instance. Or setting up wire taps on American citizens just because someone tells the FBI they heard a co-worker say something suspicious. We might soon learn what the shooter’s father knew about his son, but if he withheld that knowledge or his suspicions, it seems that wouldn’t be the FBI’s fault. There’s a trade-off between freedom and safety. In hindsight, if the FBI had narrowly applied marginally legal or even unconstitutional powers to stop this shooting, it would have been worth it. But this is a specific instant, and we wouldn’t want the FBI to have the power to violate the constitution whenever it wants. As we’ve seen just in this case alone, they aren’t perfect, and I don’t want to live in a police state.
But did they make a mistake, or—considering Mateen was an informant for over a decade—is there something more sinister afoot here?
The narrative basically goes like this: Father doesn’t tell FBI about son, so there’s a conspiracy between Mueller, Comey, and Clinton to do something. This is, in fact, really out there in right-wing nutjob publications such as Gateway Pundit, as well as on the tweets:
Self-identifying journalist Laura Loomer wrote:
And John Cardillo added:
And the always-reliable unreliable Jack Posobiec:
And sure, it seems like the FBI messed up. But it’s unclear whether, as Ms. Loomer says, James Comey himself ever knew about the father-son connection, and given the size of the FBI’s counterterrorism program, it’s almost impossible that he did. And Mr. Cardillo says this thing is getting “dirtier by the minute” because it’s connected to Mueller, Comey, and McCabe in an abstract way. I’m not sure how it’s “dirty,” as opposed to a tragic investigative error. As for Posobiec, is this an Obama scandal? What about the other times the FBI missed leads on criminals or terrorist plots? Scandals?
Or is it because there are connections to Mueller, Comey, and Clinton here, and the right wing is exploiting this error, and dozens of deaths, in a desperate attempt to discredit the unrelated Trump-Russia investigation?
Wait, Clinton? Yep. Mateen was spotted at a Clinton rally in 2016, standing behind her at the podium. Mateen also said he was a Democrat. Uh oh! He also said he wanted stricter gun laws and that Clinton would be better than Trump for that. Well no shit: The rally was held two months after his son used a semi-automatic rifle to kill 49 innocent people.
A Clinton aide told CNN the event was a “3,000-person, open-door event for the public. This individual wasn’t invited as a guest and the campaign was unaware of his attendance until after the event.” Another spokesperson issued a statement saying, “Hillary Clinton disagrees with his views and disavows his support.”
It’s unclear what such a connection would constitute, or what these people might have been trying to achieve. The FBI investigated the shooter twice, but his father knowingly misled the FBI? Or the FBI, under Mueller first, knew the father was lying to them and had an agreement with him to allow his son to murder fifty people? And this was done with the help or knowledge of the Clinton campaign in a conspiracy to defeat Trump by giving her an opportunity to push for gun control?
Anyone who connects this horrific attack to Robert Mueller’s investigation of Donald Trump knows that this investigation is going to end very badly for Trump. So take heart in that. As for the FBI’s cover-up of its failure to stop this horrible attack, it’s likely out of its own chagrin, and in defense of its agents who, though imperfect, have a massive task in front of them. But it’s still a cover-up. Though the FBI promised to investigate where it had failed, it hasn’t made public the results of its internal investigation. When the Intercept asked the FBI about this a year after the shooting, the FBI said, “We have no comment.”