Early last year, I discovered that Abu Zubaidah, the first high-value detainee who was held in top-secret CIA black site prisons and brutally tortured, has a younger brother who lives in the United States.
Research I was conducting on the accused terrorist led me to a three-year-old comment posted on Guantanamo reporter Andy Worthington’s blog about Abu Zubaidah, the alleged terrorist, left by someone who identified himself as Hesham Abu Zubaidah.
“Yes that is my brother and I live in Oregon,” the commenter said. “Do you think I should have been locked away for 2 years with no charges for a [sic] act of a sibling? I am the younger brother of [Abu Zubaidah] and I live in the USA. Tell me what you think.”
Don’t miss a beat
Get the latest news and thought-provoking analysis from Truthout.
Wow! This is a big deal, I thought. What’s Hesham’s story? Why haven’t we heard from him before? And what could he tell me about his brother, the alleged terrorist?
I tracked Hesham down to Florida. He had a fascinating tale to tell, which I have spent the past 14 months fleshing out. The result is a 15,000-word investigative report published on Truthout today about Hesham’s pursuit of the American dream and the high price he paid because he says he shares a surname with an older brother who is an infamous alleged terrorist.
In addition to the disturbing revelations about the government’s treatment of Hesham over the past decade, my report also contains the first new details about Hesham’s brother, who is referred to in my investigative report by the nickname his father gave him,”Hani.” In April 2000, Hani made three telephone calls to the United States when he was supposedly under surveillance. Former Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired the joint Congressional inquiry into the 9/11 attacks, told me the calls should have been shared with his panel and the so-called independent panel set up to investigate the attacks but wasn’t.
Moreover, Hesham revealed to me that, back in October 2010, he was subpoenaed to appear before a federal grand jury in Richmond, Virginia, to confirm that his brother was the person in a videotape speaking about jihad and 9/11, which was later used in the war crimes tribunal of a Guantanamo detainee.
Hesham was also recruited by the FBI as a confidential informant. For nearly three years, Hesham was tasked with spying on congregants at Sunni and Shia mosques in Portland, Oregon, and was told by his FBI handler to pay close attention to an imam at the Masjed As-Saber mosque named Sheikh Mohamed Abdirahman Kariye, a native of Somalia, who the FBI has been trying to link to al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden for at least a decade. Hesham said he agreed to work as an informant because his FBI handler led him to believe the bureau would help him obtain US citizenship.
My investigation turned into a yearlong project, largely due to the fact that I had filed numerous Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for records on Hesham with several government agencies and waited many months for responses. It was the FBI’s response to my FOIA on Hesham that led me to believe his story was bigger than I had originally thought it to be.
Hoping to gain deeper insight into his work as an FBI informant and the role he says the FBI played in his immigration case, I asked Hesham for permission to file a FOIA request with the bureau for his entire file. He agreed and signed a certification of identity form requesting that the agency turn over all of the records it maintained on him to me. Hesham visited a notary public and had the certification of identity form he signed notarized.
My FOIA request was filed in May 2011. The FBI sent me a letter that said the bureau’s FOIA office was processing my request. Then, last August, the FBI sent out a special agent from the FBI’s Tampa field office to speak with Hesham about my FOIA.
Bill Tidwell showed up at the home of Hesham and Jody Abu Zubaidah, his wife, on the morning of August 26, 2011. Hesham was at work. Jody’s mother, who was living with the couple at the time, answered the knock at the door. She told Jody there was “some guy in a suit at the front door.”
Jody stepped outside and Tidwell flashed his FBI badge. He said he needed to speak with Hesham. Tidwell said Hesham wasn’t “in any trouble, but it was important.” Jody told Tidwell Hesham was at work. Tidwell returned later that afternoon. Tidwell told Hesham he was sent by FBI headquarters to speak with him about the FOIA request I filed. Tidwell used my name. The agent asked Hesham how I found him and what my intentions were. Hesham told him that I was writing a story about him and that he told me “everything.” Tidwell asked Hesham to brief him on what he had told me.
“Did Jason Leopold force you to sign [the certification of identity] form? Did he offer you any money?” Tidwell asked Hesham.
“No,” Hesham said. “I am not being paid.”
Jody, who was present during the meeting, took meticulous notes.
“Listen, I don’t know what’s in your file but you do understand that once it’s released, all of that information on you will be public and everyone will see it,” Tidwell said.
“Yes,” Hesham said. “I know. That’s what I want.”
“I believe there may be information in there some people don’t want publicized,” Tidwell said. “Why do you need Jason Leopold to get this information out?”
Hesham told the special agent his life story and the “spying” he did for the bureau. He said that he has been living in limbo for the past decade as a resident – but not a citizen – of the United States. No one was helping him, and he felt the time was right to tell his story. He told Tidwell what his FBI handler informed him when he asked her if she could help him obtain a green card that his case was stuck on a shelf and couldn’t be touched.
“Whose life deserves to be stuck on a shelf?” Hesham asked Tidwell.
Tidwell and Hesham spoke for two hours. Before he left, Tidwell told Hesham he was going to write up a report and talk to the officials at headquarters who sent him out to meet with Hesham.
“I am going to call the person who sent this to us and tell him exactly what you said,” Tidwell said. “He may say ‘okay.’ Or he may say, ‘let’s just get this man the security that he wants so this can go away.'”
If it’s the latter, Tidwell asked, would you drop the FOIA?
“No way,” Hesham said. “Forgive me, but I don’t trust you guys.”
Hesham then led Tidwell to his driveway and showed him his boat. They spoke for a few more minutes and then shook hands and Tidwell left.
When the agent left, Jody called me and told what transpired. She said she took detailed notes. I was stunned. I have never heard of the FBI sending out a field agent to check on a FOIA. I called FBI headquarters and spoke with Kathleen Wright, a spokeswoman for the bureau and asked her about it.
Wright said the “visit” was “routine” and that “the FBI has an obligation to abide by the Privacy Act.”
“Agents spoke with Hesham Abu Zubaydah to confirm the FOIA request was legitimate and submitted with hi consent and knowledge.” Wright said.
She added, “This happens all of the time.”
Brad Moss, an open government expert who specializes in national security issues, disagreed.
“I’ve never heard of the FBI expending this kind of resource and going to an individual’s house and asking if the reporter coerced the individual who signed the waiver,” said Moss, an attorney with the Mark S. Zaid law firm in Washington, DC. “Given the nature of who this individual is, I am not surprised they would have concerns. With all of the budget cuts and pressure to process FOIA requests, it seems out of the ordinary to send an agent to someone’s house. As far as I am concerned, it’s unprecedented. You could have submitted this request without the waiver given the overwhelming public interest.”
Kel McClanahan, another open government expert who heads up the public interest law firm National Security Counselors, said he queried several colleagues, many of whom are government FOIA analysts who work at the Justice Department, about the “routine” visit.
“Not one had heard of this [being] ‘routine,'” said McClanahan, whose firm represents me in a lawsuit we filed against the FBI for violating a provision of FOIA when I sought pertaining to Hesham’s files. “I sent an inquiry to David Hardy [head of FBI FOIA] about it, and I’m still waiting on the answer. I guess he’s still thinking about it.”
McClanahan added, “while the FBI might have reason to deny the request if the waiver was coerced, I’m aware of no legal restriction against a person being provided reasonable compensation for access to his government records.”
“So even if the visit was routine, the questions definitely weren’t,” McClanahan said. “A routine visit would have consisted of ‘Did Jason Leopold coerce you into signing this waiver?’ ‘No.’ ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘OK, thanks for your time.'” [Full disclosure: McClanahan and I sued the FBI earlier this year for violating a provision of FOIA in response to specific questions about Hesham’s case file.]
Coleen Rowley, a former FBI special agent who blew the whistle on the bureau’s pre-9/11 intelligence failures, said she’s not surprised the FBI sent an agent out to personally speak with Hesham about my FOIA.
“The FBI considers informant matters the most sensitive things in the world,” Rowley told me.
After I spoke with Wright, the FBI spokeswoman, I filed another FOIA for documents and notes about the meeting between Tidwell and Hesham, since my name was used. It took the bureau about six months to respond. In April, I received three redacted pages. Tidwell’s notes were not turned over, just a report he sent to “records management” summarizing his interview with Hesham.
Tidwell’s name, which was also redacted from the interview report, says:
Tidwell’s report claimed that Hesham told him he signed “the privacy statement for Leopold in hopes an article written by Leopold would help him gain status in the US and obtain a green card.”
“Abu Zubaidah advised the article is not something he wants written, but he feels he has no other option,” Tidwell’s report says. “Abu Zubaidah currently has no status in the US and is fearful he could be deported at any moment. [Redacted] Abu Zubaidah feels he has proven he is not a terrorist and considers himself an American. Abu Zubaidah fears he [redacted] if he does not gain status in the US. He hopes the article will be read by someone who can help him with this matter.”
In another redacted section of Tidwell’s report, he noted the circumstances that led me to contact Hesham:
The report goes on to say:
Last September, after Tidwell filed his report, the FBI sent me a letter saying the bureau “located approximately 1,200 pages which are potentially responsive to my FOIA request.”
The documents have been in the possession of a “disclosure analyst” since last September, according to David Sobonya, an FBI FOIA spokesman.
To be continued …