U.S. Attorney Defends Decision to Scrap Awlaki Arrest Warrant

Gaouette says "bad reputation" not enough reason to arrest terror suspect.

ByABC News
December 3, 2009, 6:00 PM

Dec. 7, 2009 — -- U.S. Attorney David Gaouette defended the decision to rescind a 2002 felony arrest warrant for radical Islamic cleric Anwar Awlaki, saying that his office determined there was insufficient evidence to pursue the case.

As reported by ABC News, the warrant for Awlaki, an al-Qaeda recruiter and self-described "confidant" of alleged Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan, was rescinded a day before Awlaki was intercepted as a terror suspect at JFK airport in New York in October 2002. Authorities had to release him, and he soon left the country.

The warrant would have given terror investigators the right to hold Awlaki, who was on a terror watch list, on charges of felony passport fraud. "It was a determination of our office that we couldn't prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt and we asked the court to withdraw the complaint," Gaouette, U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado, told ABC News. Gaouette, who in 2002 was the assistant U.S. attorney who supervised the Awlaki case, said he took responsibility for rescinding the warrant.

Gaouette also said that Awlaki's terrorism-related background had no bearing on the decision to drop the case. He said he could not continue with a case just "because someone has a bad reputation."

"There are 300 million people who would disagree with him," said Ray Fournier, the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) agent who originally investigated the passport fraud case. Awlaki, who had met with three of the 9/11 hijackers while he was an imam at mosques in California and Virginia, had also been in touch with an associate of "the blind sheik," Omar Abdel Rahman, now serving in federal prison for seditious conspiracy.

CLICK HERE FOR COMPLETE COVERAGE OF THE FORT HOOD SHOOTING.

The cancellation of the warrant infuriated anti-terrorism investigators who were trying to put Awlaki under wraps, according to sources close to the case. Shortly after he was released from JFK, Awlaki left the U.S. for good and eventually settled in Yemen, where intelligence officials say he has become a leading recruiter for al-Qaeda. Awlaki has been named as the spiritual inspiration for terrorism plots in the U.S. and Canada and had extensive e-mail exchanges with Maj. Nidal Hasan, charged with 13 counts of murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder in last month's mass shooting at Fort Hood, Texas.

"Investigators were aggressively trying to pin Awlaki down so they could work 9/11 and other terrorism cases against him, and that's why that passport fraud charge was so critical," said Paul Sperry of the Hoover Institution who first reported on the Awlaki arrest warrant in his book, "Muslim Mafia."

The Awlaki case began in 2002 when agents with the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) in San Diego began an intensive investigation of Awlaki because of his ties to two 9/11 hijackers who had attended his mosque in San Diego. Agents discovered that the U.S.-born Awlaki had falsely indicated on his 1990 Social Security number application that he had been born in Sana'a, Yemen. Because the statute of limitations had passed, agents could not charge Awlaki with social security fraud. However, when Awlaki used his Social Security number to apply for a U.S. passport in Denver several years later investigators believed he could be successfully charged with felony passport fraud because the alleged offense had occurred within the ten-year statute of limitations.

When the case was presented to the Denver U.S. Attorney's Office, prosecutors decided to pursue an arrest warrant, which was signed off on by a federal judge in June of 2002. According to the warrant, Awlaki "applied for the passport on November 18, 1993 using a social security number that he had obtained by fraud. His use of this number violates the terms and conditions as stated on a… application for a passport and constitutes fraud."

CLICK HERE TO READ AWLAKI'S ARREST WARRANT

If convicted, Awlaki could have faced 10 years in prison, though as a first offender, he most likely would have received a six-month sentence. Still, investigators say they thought it was worth it for a chance to detain and hold the radical cleric.

However, Gaouette says his office decided to rescind the warrant after it was discovered that Awlaki had somehow "corrected" his place of birth at a Social Security office in 1996, three years after he applied for the passport. Because it was now a valid Social Security number, Gaouette said he had no choice but to drop the case.

"It was a big factor," said Gaouette. "Our key witness, the Social Security Administration, wouldn't be able to testify that there was any fraud…we cannot ethically go forward on an arrest or an indictment or certainly a trial when we don't have sufficient evidence to prove the charge. "

But DSS agent Fournier, who initiated the passport fraud case, took issue with Gaouette's contention that there was insufficient evidence to proceed, saying, "It doesn't change the facts that when he executed the passport application he had a number that was based on fraudulent infomation, and that fact can never be changed." Fournier said that in his career at DSS he had helped obtain over 300 felony convictions for passport and visa fraud and that in his view, the Awlaki case was solid.

JTTF investigators in San Diego were "disappointed and shocked" when the warrant was rescinded according to a former agent who asked not be named. "This was a missed opportunity to get this guy under wraps so we could look at him under a microscope," said the agent.

Gaouette noted that a review of the case file showed that investigators did not raise any objections after his office notified them of the decision to cancel the warrant. However, Fournier says he personally flew to Denver from San Diego, at DSS expense, to express his outrage and to stress the importance of detaining Awlaki because of his terrorism ties. "The case was absolutely worth pursuing," said Fournier.

However, Gaouette said Awlaki's background had no bearing on the decision to drop the case. "That's not how we operate or any prosecutor's office operates," said Gaouette. "We don't present cases to the grand jury or present complaints to a magistrate judge because someone has a bad reputation or because an agent wants to put the screws to them."

"If he wants to say that, that's fine," responded Fournier. "But Awlaki is different, he is unique."

Click Here for the Blotter Homepage.

The cancellation of the warrant infuriated anti-terrorism investigators who were trying to put Awlaki under wraps, according to sources close to the case. Shortly after he was released from JFK, Awlaki left the U.S. for good and eventually settled in Yemen, where intelligence officials say he has become a leading recruiter for al-Qaeda. Awlaki has been named as the spiritual inspiration for terrorism plots in the U.S. and Canada and had extensive e-mail exchanges with Maj. Nidal Hasan, charged with 13 counts of murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder in last month's mass shooting at Fort Hood, Texas.

\"Investigators were aggressively trying to pin Awlaki down so they could work 9/11 and other terrorism cases against him, and that's why that passport fraud charge was so critical,\" said Paul Sperry of the Hoover Institution who first reported on the Awlaki arrest warrant in his book, \"Muslim Mafia.\"

The Awlaki case began in 2002 when agents with the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) in San Diego began an intensive investigation of Awlaki because of his ties to two 9/11 hijackers who had attended his mosque in San Diego. Agents discovered that the U.S.-born Awlaki had falsely indicated on his 1990 Social Security number application that he had been born in Sana'a, Yemen. Because the statute of limitations had passed, agents could not charge Awlaki with social security fraud. However, when Awlaki used his Social Security number to apply for a U.S. passport in Denver several years later investigators believed he could be successfully charged with felony passport fraud because the alleged offense had occurred within the ten-year statute of limitations.

When the case was presented to the Denver U.S. Attorney's Office, prosecutors decided to pursue an arrest warrant, which was signed off on by a federal judge in June of 2002. According to the warrant, Awlaki \"applied for the passport on November 18, 1993 using a social security number that he had obtained by fraud. His use of this number violates the terms and conditions as stated on a… application for a passport and constitutes fraud.\"

CLICK HERE TO READ AWLAKI'S ARREST WARRANT

If convicted, Awlaki could have faced 10 years in prison, though as a first offender, he most likely would have received a six-month sentence. Still, investigators say they thought it was worth it for a chance to detain and hold the radical cleric.

However, Gaouette says his office decided to rescind the warrant after it was discovered that Awlaki had somehow \"corrected\" his place of birth at a Social Security office in 1996, three years after he applied for the passport. Because it was now a valid Social Security number, Gaouette said he had no choice but to drop the case.

\"It was a big factor,\" said Gaouette. \"Our key witness, the Social Security Administration, wouldn't be able to testify that there was any fraud…we cannot ethically go forward on an arrest or an indictment or certainly a trial when we don't have sufficient evidence to prove the charge. \"

But DSS agent Fournier, who initiated the passport fraud case, took issue with Gaouette's contention that there was insufficient evidence to proceed, saying, \"It doesn't change the facts that when he executed the passport application he had a number that was based on fraudulent infomation, and that fact can never be changed.\" Fournier said that in his career at DSS he had helped obtain over 300 felony convictions for passport and visa fraud and that in his view, the Awlaki case was solid.

JTTF investigators in San Diego were \"disappointed and shocked\" when the warrant was rescinded according to a former agent who asked not be named. \"This was a missed opportunity to get this guy under wraps so we could look at him under a microscope,\" said the agent.

Gaouette noted that a review of the case file showed that investigators did not raise any objections after his office notified them of the decision to cancel the warrant. However, Fournier says he personally flew to Denver from San Diego, at DSS expense, to express his outrage and to stress the importance of detaining Awlaki because of his terrorism ties. \"The case was absolutely worth pursuing,\" said Fournier.

However, Gaouette said Awlaki's background had no bearing on the decision to drop the case. \"That's not how we operate or any prosecutor's office operates,\" said Gaouette. \"We don't present cases to the grand jury or present complaints to a magistrate judge because someone has a bad reputation or because an agent wants to put the screws to them.\"

\"If he wants to say that, that's fine,\" responded Fournier. \"But Awlaki is different, he is unique.\"

Click Here for the Blotter Homepage.

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All times Eastern."},"pinnedPosts":[],"entries":[{"id":"107523984","authors":[{"name":"Tia Yang","metaDescription":"Tia Yang is on ABC News. 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It’s a decisive victory for the former president, as expected, though a somewhat smaller margin than his average lead in the polls heading into today (around 28 points).","idAttr":""},{"type":"paragraph","id":1,"content":"Haley’s margin of defeat, though, looks even larger when it comes to delegates: Under South Carolina’s delegate allocation system, over half the state’s 50 delegates are awarded to the statewide winner, while the rest are awarded by congressional district. It looks like the maximum delegates Haley could walk away with in her home state tonight is three, if she holds onto her lead in the 1st District.","idAttr":""},{"type":"ad","provider":"teads","position":"incontentTeads","id":2,"devices":["desktop","mobile","tablet"],"kvps":{}},{"type":"paragraph","id":3,"content":"Despite this, Haley proclaimed in her speech that tonight’s result demonstrated her home state’s frustration with the country’s direction and reiterated her promise to stay in the race.","idAttr":""},{"type":"paragraph","id":4,"content":"And on that note ... We hope to see you back here for our Super Tuesday live blog on March 5! We're gearing up for an eventful night tracking not only the presidential race in 15 states (and one territory) but a slew of down-ballot primaries in Senate, House and gubernatorial races as well.","idAttr":""},{"type":"paragraph","id":5,"content":"—Tia Yang, 538","idAttr":""}],"inlines":[],"headline":"That's a wrap!","id":"107523984","linkText":"","pageType":"SinglePage","subHead":"","hasConnatix":true},"featuredVideo":null,"featuredImage":null,"dateModified":"2024-02-25T02:29:57Z","datePublished":"2024-02-25T02:30:02Z","renderingHints":[],"contentFlag":null,"wordCount":203,"readTime":"2 min read","config":{"showAds":true,"showComments":true,"showSponsoredLinks":true},"displayAdKeyValues":{"tag":"abcnews/538","objid":"107523984","pgn":"538","pgtyp":"story","lang":"en","sp":"abcnews","programmatic":"true","bundleId":"com.abcnews"},"metadata":{"timestamp":"2024-02-25T02:30:02Z","dateModified":"2024-02-25T02:29:57Z","sourceLine":"ABC News","title":"That's a wrap!","description":"","canonicalUrl":"https://abcnews.go.com","noIndexNoFollow":false},"canonical":"https://abcnews.go.com/538/live-updates/south-carolina-primary-2024-live-blog/thats-a-wrap-107523984?id=107414634","articleUrl":"https://abcnews.go.com","section":"538","announcementType":"","tracking":{"word_count":203,"media_on_page":"","article_id":"107414634","article_headline":"South Carolina primary 2024: Trump projected win, Haley vows to stay in the race","content_type":"liveblog post","position_number":0,"global.TagID":"aclick_news06a","liveblog.post_headline":"That's a wrap!","liveblog.post_id":"107523984","by_line":"Tia Yang"},"inlines":[],"date":{"date":"2024-02-25T02:30:02Z","preFormat":"MMM DD, h:mm A z","postFormat":"MMM DD, h:mm A z","useShort":false,"text":"2024-02-25T02:30:02Z","threshold":4,"thresholdType":"hours"},"relativeDate":{"date":"2024-02-25T02:30:02Z","preFormat":"relative","postFormat":"MMM DD, h:mm A z","useShort":false,"text":"2024-02-25T02:30:02Z","threshold":4,"thresholdType":"hours"},"shareURLs":{"fb":"https://www.facebook.com/sharer.php?u=https://abcnews.go.com/538/live-updates/south-carolina-primary-2024-live-blog/thats-a-wrap-107523984?id=107414634","fbLabel":"Share to Facebook","fbAppId":"4942312939","twitter":"http://twitter.com/intent/tweet?text=That's a wrap! - ABC News - https://abcnews.go.com/538/live-updates/south-carolina-primary-2024-live-blog/thats-a-wrap-107523984?id=107414634&via=ABC","twitterLabel":"Share to Twitter","twitterAmpLabel":"That's a wrap! - ABC News via @ABC -","email":"mailto:?subject=That's%20a%20wrap!&body=https%3A%2F%2Fabcnews.go.com%2F538%2Flive-updates%2Fsouth-carolina-primary-2024-live-blog%2Fthats-a-wrap-107523984%3Fid%3D107414634","emailLabel":"Email this article","emailType":"customemail","canonical":"https://abcnews.go.com/538/live-updates/south-carolina-primary-2024-live-blog/thats-a-wrap-107523984?id=107414634","shortLink":"https://abcnews.go.com/538/live-updates/south-carolina-primary-2024-live-blog/thats-a-wrap-107523984?id=107414634"}},{"id":"107523981","authors":[{"name":"G. 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Elliott Morris","headshot":"https://s.abcnews.com/images/538/g-ELLIOTT-MORRIS-abc-gmh-231215_1702675578253_hpEmbed_1x1_240.jpg","link":"https://abcnews.go.com/author/gelliott_morris","url":"https://abcnews.go.com/author/gelliott_morris","unit":null,"bureau":null,"linkTracking":{}}],"body":[{"type":"paragraph","id":0,"content":"I have become a little obsessed tonight about what we should be expecting Trump to hit in this primary a priori. That is, given Trump is assumed to be the eventual party nominee and almost universally liked in the GOP, should he be winning more than 60 percent in South Carolina?","idAttr":""},{"type":"paragraph","id":1,"content":"I already gave my case for answering \"no\" to that question: Strictly speaking Trump is dominating the delegate count and running ahead of his 2016 vote share in most counties with complete counts this primary cycle. And if you consider that Haley gets a home-state advantage in South Carolina tonight, Trump's adjusted vote share is close to 65 or 70 percent; our delegate benchmarks think Trump should have won 68 percent of the vote based on the demographics of the state alone. That's not the highest number, but it's not the lowest right? Would 65 percent be \"good\" for Trump? 75 percent? 80?","idAttr":""},{"type":"ad","provider":"teads","position":"incontentTeads","id":2,"devices":["desktop","mobile","tablet"],"kvps":{}},{"type":"paragraph","id":3,"content":"One counterargument to this centers around how the media has covered historical performances by incumbent presidential candidates. Journalist Jill Lawrence points out that in 1992, Patrick Buchanan challenged incumbent President George H.W. Bush for the GOP nomination and won 40 percent in the New Hampshire primary, holding Bush to 58 percent of the vote. That's an almost identical split to the results from tonight. The New York Times journalist Robin Toner wrote up the results with the headline \"BUSH JARRED IN FIRST PRIMARY\" and said the result \"amounted to a roar of anger\" from Republican primary voters.","idAttr":""},{"type":"paragraph","id":4,"content":"If Trump was a true incumbent, I imagine the news media would use a similar headline to describe tonight's results in South Carolina. Perhaps our expectations for him are too low, or we're too focused on the broader state of play? Haley said in her concession speech tonight that she will stay in the race indefinitely, so I guess we'll get more data on Super Tuesday — only 10 days from now. The primary lives on!","idAttr":""},{"type":"paragraph","id":5,"content":"—G. 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(If you’re reading this live blog, I’d bet Nathaniel’s next paycheck you already know that.) But I don’t think we should lose sight of where specifically Trump is struggling in South Carolina and in the other early states: metro areas and the suburbs. Tonight, the three counties Haley won happen to be the three counties with the highest educational attainment in the state. We know that one of the primary engines of Democratic success in every cycle since 2016, really, has been improved fortunes among suburban and educated voters. Most Haley voters will end up voting for Trump, yes, but I don’t think it’s insignificant that even as he flexes control over the GOP for eight years running, his problems in the suburbs are still as evident as ever.","idAttr":""},{"type":"paragraph","id":1,"content":"—Jacob Rubashkin, Inside Elections","idAttr":""}],"inlines":[],"headline":"Final thought: Looking to the suburbs","id":"107523980","linkText":"","pageType":"SinglePage","subHead":"","hasConnatix":false},"featuredVideo":null,"featuredImage":null,"dateModified":"2024-02-25T02:20:26Z","datePublished":"2024-02-25T02:20:31Z","renderingHints":[],"contentFlag":null,"wordCount":144,"readTime":"1 min read","config":{"showAds":true,"showComments":true,"showSponsoredLinks":true},"displayAdKeyValues":{"tag":"abcnews/538","objid":"107523980","pgn":"538","pgtyp":"story","lang":"en","sp":"abcnews","programmatic":"true","bundleId":"com.abcnews"},"metadata":{"timestamp":"2024-02-25T02:20:31Z","dateModified":"2024-02-25T02:20:26Z","sourceLine":"ABC News","title":"Final thought: Looking to the suburbs","description":"","canonicalUrl":"https://abcnews.go.com","noIndexNoFollow":false},"canonical":"https://abcnews.go.com/538/live-updates/south-carolina-primary-2024-live-blog/final-thought-looking-to-the-suburbs-107523980?id=107414634","articleUrl":"https://abcnews.go.com","section":"538","announcementType":"","tracking":{"word_count":144,"media_on_page":"","article_id":"107414634","article_headline":"South Carolina primary 2024: Trump projected win, Haley vows to stay in the race","content_type":"liveblog post","position_number":-2,"global.TagID":"aclick_news06a","liveblog.post_headline":"Final thought: Looking to the suburbs","liveblog.post_id":"107523980","by_line":"Jacob Rubashkin"},"inlines":[],"date":{"date":"2024-02-25T02:20:31Z","preFormat":"MMM DD, h:mm A z","postFormat":"MMM DD, h:mm A z","useShort":false,"text":"2024-02-25T02:20:31Z","threshold":4,"thresholdType":"hours"},"relativeDate":{"date":"2024-02-25T02:20:31Z","preFormat":"relative","postFormat":"MMM DD, h:mm A z","useShort":false,"text":"2024-02-25T02:20:31Z","threshold":4,"thresholdType":"hours"},"shareURLs":{"fb":"https://www.facebook.com/sharer.php?u=https://abcnews.go.com/538/live-updates/south-carolina-primary-2024-live-blog/final-thought-looking-to-the-suburbs-107523980?id=107414634","fbLabel":"Share to Facebook","fbAppId":"4942312939","twitter":"http://twitter.com/intent/tweet?text=Final thought: Looking to the suburbs - 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That may signal that Haley could carry the 1st Congressional District once all is said and done to win three delegates. That may not seem like much, but Trump swept South Carolina's delegates in 2016, and if Haley is sticking around, winning any delegates has to be part of her strategy to carry on.","idAttr":""},{"type":"inline","idx":1,"id":"1"},{"type":"ad","provider":"teads","position":"incontentTeads","id":2,"devices":["desktop","mobile","tablet"],"kvps":{}},{"type":"paragraph","id":3,"content":"Half of the 1st District's population is in Charleston and Beaufort counties, according to Daily Kos Elections — both of which Haley currently lead in. Another 49 percent of the district lies in Berkeley and Dorchester counties, both of which Trump holds an edge in (the remaining 1 percent is in Colleton and Jasper counties). Charleston and Dorchester are both split between the 1st and 6th, so we can't figure out the district-level result based purely on the county-level numbers. 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