This morning’s Star Tribune has a good story on the investigation of al Qaeda’s Minneapolis connection: “Digging deep for clues in terror case.” The FBI seems to have taken a cue from Dylanologist A.J. Weberman and looked to the garbage as a source of information:
While investigating the latest of five terrorism-related cases with Minnesota ties, federal authorities told a housemate of suspect Mohamad Elzahabi that agents had been conducting surveillance on their Minneapolis house for months, collecting their trash and piecing together evidence, according to an attorney for the housemate.
St. Paul attorney Randall L. Morris said investigators grilled his client for hours in early May, at one point producing shredded documents that they had taped together and that suggested a plot for an attack in Washington, D.C. He said investigators repeatedly accused his client of lying and surprised him twice, including approaching him once at a coffee shop.
It’s unclear whether the line of questioning used by the FBI indicates actual suspicions about an attack or is a tactic to draw out information from the man. FBI Special Agent Paul McCabe said the FBI knows of no planned attacks in Washington or any U.S. city.
But the FBI interviews offer a glimpse into the tactics federal authorities are using to root out terrorism suspects after the 9/11 attacks.
An FBI affidavit says Elzahabi, a Lebanese national, admitted that he taught sniping at an Al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan, had fought as a sniper there and in Chechnya and that he associated with some of the terrorist group’s leaders. Elzahabi, 41, was charged last week with two counts of making false statements. He had been living with several other people in a house near the University of Minnesota that is also home to a mosque.
McCabe declined to say whether anyone else has been held in connection with Elzahabi or the house. Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Ward, the prosecutor in Elzahabi’s case, declined to comment on an ongoing criminal case.
Hours of interviews
Morris, who declined to identify his client, said he sat in on two interviews in which two investigators — an FBI special agent and a Bloomington police officer who is on the Minneapolis FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force — asked his client detailed questions about each housemate.
The interviews at FBI headquarters in downtown Minneapolis lasted more than eight hours spanning two days, Morris said.
He and his client were allowed bathroom breaks and time to confer in private. There were no lunch breaks and the two were given water to drink.
Referring this week to a yellow legal pad on which he had taken notes from the interviews, Morris said that the two investigators asked his client about whether he had knowledge of any planned attacks. He said they brought in file folders with documents that had been shredded, then taped together.
“They claimed they had evidence they found in the trash that suggested there was an attack that was being planned,” Morris said. He said he wondered “whether or not the evidence was authentic.”
He said the interviewers indicated that they had the house under surveillance and had been collecting trash at the house for what “sounded like at least a year.”
Morris said the investigators tried to convince his client he could avoid prosecution by saying anything he knew.
“The main focus was definitely in trying to find out what everyone else in the household had been up to,” Morris said. He said they asked his client mostly about Elzahabi, whom his client knew but not as a close friend.
He said his client’s impressions were that all his housemates, including Elzahabi, were “apolitical.”
Morris said they used “good cop-bad cop” tactics in the questioning, accusing the client of lying, bluffing that they had proof of it and reminding him that lying meant they could prosecute him and send him to jail.
They eventually convinced him to take a polygraph test, Morris said, arguing that if he had nothing to hide, he should be willing, and that if he didn’t take it, it would lead them to look at him more closely.
Morris said he had time to research the tests and advise his client about the pros and cons of taking one.
Morris said he wasn’t allowed to be there for the test. His client passed and investigators indicated that they didn’t consider his client a threat, Morris said.
But the next day, he said his client later told him, a Secret Service agent approached the man at a coffee shop and threatened that if anything happened to President Bush, they would come after him, Morris said.
Tactics not uncommon
Retired FBI agent Larry Brubaker said that although he had no knowledge of the Elzahabi case and has never had to do interviews connected with suspected terrorist activity, many of the tactics described by Morris are used in other criminal investigations.
“You would often throw out hypothetical things to see if they bite on it,” he said of interviews with suspects or witnesses. “You might even throw out things that weren’t related to the issue at hand to get a feel for the kind of person you’re dealing with.”
Other techniques during criminal interviews might include producing false documents or telling tales, he said. For example, in a murder case, an interviewer might falsely tell the person being questioned that someone else has implicated him or her, he said.
The suspect might then say, “Wait, let me tell you my side of the story,” Brubaker said.
Nick O’Hara, who formerly headed the FBI’s Minneapolis office and is now an inspector with the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office, said he could not speak about the Elzahabi case. But, he said, telling tales and providing false documents in interviews has been upheld by the courts. It’s not a strategy he would commonly use, though.
“I don’t know if it’s a strategy you would want to use everyday,” he said. “In a lot of instances, all you have is your credibility.”
Regarding the interview of Elzahabi’s housemate, Morris said he wasn’t surprised by the agents’ tactics. Even when the agents brought out taped-together documents, Morris said, he questioned their authenticity.
“I’m somewhat suspicious because they claim to have put the shreddings together in a relatively short period of time and the remaining shreddings were in Quantico,” Morris said, referring to the FBI academy in Virginia. “How is it that they were lucky enough to pick out the few shreddings that had all of this allegedly damaging information on it?”
Morris said that whether the documents or claims the investigators made were false, the serious tone of the meetings couldn’t have been more real.
Said Morris: “There was definitely an attempt to convince him that whether he knew it or not he was intentionally or unintentionally way in over his head.”