FBI Agent on Synagogue Case Has Questionable Record
The FBI agent with a high-profile role in yesterday's arrests of four men for plotting a terror attack in New York has a pretty interesting -- and controversial -- track record.
Special Agent Robert Fuller, whose name appears at the top of the federal criminal complaint in the case, had a hand in the FBI's failure to nab two of the 9/11 hijackers, had one of his informants set himself on fire in front of the White House, and was involved in misidentifying a Canadian man as a terrorist leading to his secret arrest and torture -- a case that is now the subject of a major lawsuit.
Fuller is listed as the lead agent in the arrests of four men yesterday who officials say were trying to blow up a couple of synagogues and shoot a military jet from the sky. But as in other cases of seemingly inept homegrown terrorists, the four suspects were supplied (inert) weapons from an FBI informant, and in coming weeks we'll learn more about how much that informant goaded the four suspects into carrying out the supposed acts of terrorism. The case is being prosecuted in the Southern District of New York. (James Margolin, an FBI spokesman said the agency declines to comment for this story, because Fuller is a potential witness in an ongoing prosecution.)
Fuller was involved in the earlier Canadian case as the man who interrogated a wounded Afghani teenager named Omar Khadr. (We've written extensively about Khadr's bizarre case here.) Under Fuller's interrogation, Khadr dubiously identified a Canadian citizen named Maher Arar as someone he had seen in Afghanistan. Arar was then shipped to Syria where he was imprisoned and tortured for a year. It's now been proven that Arar could not have been in Afghanistan when Khadr, under intense pressure from Fuller, said he saw him there.
In January, Fuller took the witness stand in Khadr's trial at Guantanamo Bay. He testified that during the interrogation at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, Khadr identified Arar from a photo and said he had seen him in Afghanistan.
Under cross examination, though, Fuller disclosed that Khadr didn't actually identify Arar. Instead, he first said Arar "looked familiar," and then "in time" he felt he recognized the man in the photo, according to Fuller's testimony.
"We don't know what was happening, whether that was hours or days later," Kerry Pither, a Canadian journalist whose book Dark Days: The story of four Canadians tortured in the name of fighting terror focuses on the Arar case.
According to Steven Watt, one of Arar's lawyers now with the ACLU, Khadr's identification should have been treated as highly suspect... "Khadr would have been about 14, blind in one eye and suffering from serious wounds," Watt says. "It was totally ridiculous."
A Canadian commission of inquiry had already established that Arar was in Canada at the time that Fuller claims that Khadr said he was supposedly in Afghanistan.
"Fuller very clearly has a questionable track record," Pither says. "Even if his claims about what Khadr said were true, there's no doubt that Khadr would have said anything. He is on the record as having said he would have said anything to get better treatment."
Arar's "extraordinary rendition" was a huge story in Canada. He was the first person so treated to go public and demand accountability.
His lawsuit against the Canadian government was settled for $10 million. He also got an apology from the Canadian prime minister on national television (Imagine a U.S. president doing the same).
The apology was given after a high ranking Canadian minister had the opportunity to view the American intelligence file on Arar -- confirming, Pither says, once and for all that Arar was innocent. Arar's lawsuit against the U.S. government is still pending.
Fuller was also on the team that was tasked to track down two of the 9/11 hijackers in August, 2001, prior to the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
The New York Observer reported that after the CIA told the FBI that the two hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hamzi were in the United States, Fuller was assigned to bring them into custody on Aug. 23, 2001, 19 days prior to the attacks.
A fellow agent, the Observer reported, had labeled the lead "routine," meaning that Fuller had 30 days to catch them. Fuller went through local databases, checked Mihdhar's New York hotel and then let it drop. Standard procedure, the papers said, held that he also should have search commercial databases, but he did not.
He later claimed that he consulted ChoicePoint database on Sept. 4 or 5, but the 9/11 Commission later concluded that the FBI did not consult that database until after the attacks, the newspaper said.
And in November, 2004, an informant Fuller was working with named Mohamed Alanssi made his way to the sidewalk in front of the White House and set himself on fire. Alanssi's suicide letter was addressed to Fuller, who, at the time, had been his chief case agent for three years, according to a court affidavit he filed.
Alanssi, 52, emotionally unbalanced and distraught, said in the rambling letter that he wanted to go home to Yemen to see his wife before he testified in open court. Alanssi also complained that his case agents broke their promises to pay him, to get him citizenship and to protect his identity, the Washington Post wrote at the time.
"Why you don't care about my life and my family's life," he wrote. " Once I testify my family will be killed in Yemen, me too I will be dead man."
Alanssi told the Post that the FBI paid him $100,000 in 2003. "It is my big mistake that I have cooperated with FBI. The FBI have already destroyed my life and my family's life and made us in a very danger position . . . I am not crazy to destroy my life and my family's life to get $100,000," he said.
A 2004 New York Times story reported that the FBI had used Alanssi in the prosecution of 20 people.
"Mr. Alanssi's bizarre actions also put on full display another vulnerability in high-pressure investigations: The strained relationships that are often the foundation of investigators' dealings with their informants can suddenly careen out of control," wrote the Times' William Glaberson.
Alanssi survived but was left in critical condition with burns over 30 percent of his body.
You can read more on the Arar case at: www.maherarar.ca or www.kerrypither.ca
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.