Interview With Truthout’s Jason Leopold on His Report on Abu Zubaydah’s Brother
On Tuesday, Truthout’s Jason Leopold published a comprehensive and detailed investigative report on the “other Abu Zubaydah.” The report covered the brother of the high-profile terror suspect still being held at Guantanamo, whose name is Hesham. It highlighted how Leopold had discovered Hesham was living in the United States and had been in the US before 9/11. Leopold was interested in what Hesham might have to say about Abu Zubaydah. But, as he began to engage Hesham, he realized that Hesham had a powerful story to tell.
The full investigative report can be read here. Leopold says it took him many months to put the report together because he had to wait for Freedom of Information requests to be filled by government agencies.
I interviewed Jason Leopold for The Dissenter at Firedoglake. In the interview, we discuss what he discovered in his investigation, how he struggled to pry information from the government through FOIA requests and what Hesham had to say about his brother (who he refers to as “Hani”).
Below is a player that can be clicked on to listen to the interview. There is also a transcript of the interview I did with Leopold below.
KEVIN GOSZTOLA: This is about the brother of Abu Zubaydah, Hesham. Can you introduce Hesham for us?
JASON LEOPOLD: His brother Hesham has been living in the United States since 1998 and I found him during the course of doing research on the person we commonly know as Abu Zubaydah, the alleged terrorist. I refer to him in my story as “Hani.” Hani is the nickname that their father had given, their father had given the alleged terrorist. And I say alleged for a specific reason because he hasn’t been charged with any crimes and everything we know about him comes from the US government. And they’ve since backed off many of the claims that they have made.
It was during the course of this research where I stumbled upon a comment. At the time it was a three year-old on Andy Worthington’s blog (Andy Worthington the Guantanamo reporter who does outstanding work on those issues). And the comment more or less was, Do you think it’s fair that I’ve been incarcerated and imprisoned for two years in Oregon for crimes of my brother? And said that Hesham was Zayn’s younger brother (Zayn is Abu Zubaydah) and do you think it is fair? And I was stunned because everything we know about Abu Zubaydah has come from the government and the fact that he had a brother here just sort of blew me away.
The first instinct was that I need to track this guy down and see if this is actually true. So, I did and he in fact does have a brother who lives here. Still does. He lives in Florida. And when I spoke to him it was — And I tracked him there because he said in jail, going on and doing some research on Lexis I was able to locate some court files and I was just stunned that nobody’s ever spoken to him before. Why didn’t anyone know that he lived here? And during the course of our conversation it became very clear to me that he had his own story. Because I was originally intending to write a profile on Abu Zubaydah and I was thinking perhaps Hesham can fill in some details about his brother. Does he know anything about his alleged terrorist activities? So, it was during that conversation that I realized this guy has his own fascinating story to tell and I really need to flesh it out. Once it was published on May 29, that was the more than fourteen months investigative report, of putting that together.
GOSZTOLA: You hint at the fact that you were surprised to know that there was a brother of Abu Zubaydah here and in the story you talk about what this means in terms of what we know about what the government knew ahead of 9/11? Can you talk a little bit about that?
LEOPOLD: First of all, there were obvious questions: Was he ever approached by intelligence officials prior to 9/11? Abu Zubaydah has been someone that the FBI claims has been on their radar for years and years. Certainly, when 9/11 happened, it was at least ten years when he was on the radar. So, the first person I contacted was John Kiriakou, who is the former CIA officer now charged with leaking classified information to journalists. He’s being charged under the Espionage Act and violating the Espionage Act. I said, did you know that Abu Zubaydah had a brother here? He was stunned. He claims he did not know and he said that had he known that there was a brother here he would have tried to get the FBI to speak to him because they were still having difficulty tracking down—Before this operation in Pakistan in 2002, they were still trying to figure out where is Abu Zubaydah. They knew he was either in Pakistan or Afghanistan but they didn’t exactly know where.
And so, when I spoke to Hesham, he told me that nobody spoke to him before 9/11. It wasn’t until 9/11 happened that he got a knock on the door. But I did obtain some documents. I obtained an FBI report where some pages are missing that showed that the FBI spoke to his wife – Hesham’s wife – three weeks before 9/11. So that was just curious to me. And she was making all of these wild claims in this interview about Hesham.
I obviously from there went to the CIA and FBI. Nobody would speak on record. Finally, I did get the CIA to say that they knew he had a brother here before 9/11 and that was it. They were trying to make arrangements to speak with him but then 9/11 happened and it was too late.
But, I should add that one of the most important details in this story is the revelation that there were three phone calls made to the United States by Hani – Hesham’s brother – in April of 2000. And those phone calls took place while he was under surveillance. Hesham and Hani hadn’t spoken in a decade so this call came out of the blue. Hesham was living in Portland at the time. He was working at a gas station. The call came out of the blue and they were discussing their family and it turns out that the information about the call, which was known to the FBI after 9/11, was not shared with the 9/11 Commission. That kind of undercuts the veracity of their final report because it’s an important piece of information that Sen. Bob Graham, who shared the congressional inquiry looking into 9/11, he told me that is something he would have wanted to know.
I filed a FOIA request with the National Security Agency (NSA) to find out if they tracked that call that came into the US. They issued what is known as a Glomar response. They would neither confirm nor deny. I can tell you that on background some folks at the FBI, whose job was to track Al Qaeda movements – They said they were absolutely unaware of the phone call.
GOSZTOLA: Now, you mention that you pursued this story out of your interest in Zubaydah or Hani. I’m wondering what perhaps you were able to glean, what you thought was most striking in talking to Hesham and what you were able to get from him and your thoughts on how he regards his brother. What kind of reactions did you have to his attitude?
LEOPOLD: It’s an important questions and that’s exactly what I wanted to find out. He comes from a family of ten children. Hani is five years older than Hesham. When Hesham was about twelve or thirteen – just entering high school – he was diagnosed with testicular cancer and it was serious where he didn’t attend high school for three years. At that point, Hani left. He left home, was sent off to college in India where he was supposedly studying. The US government claims that rather than attend college that is where he attended training camp. So, his memories of his brother stop when Hesham was about twelve. And so what he remembers is what he refers to is a really good guy, a good fun guy. He said Hani used to play keyboards, would protect him from neighborhood bullies, was somewhat of a womanizer. He put him on his lap and would drive him to the beach and they’d have a barbecue and he was always playing his keyboards. He never tried to fit in with other Saudis, which is what his father wanted. He never had a mustache or a beard. And certainly wasn’t someone who was religious. So, when he was shown pictures of his brother by the FBI, his first reaction was I have no idea who that person is. His memory is stuck at this certain point of time where Hani was about eighteen.
I felt it sort of humanized him a little bit. As I said, all we know about him is whatever the government tells us. We don’t really know anything else and I felt it was important to inject that information into the story because it provides a sense of humanity. What happened that led Hani to allegedly wage violent jihad? I don’t know and that was what I was hoping to get and Hesham certainly had no idea. And I do believe him. Once Hani left home, he had spoken to him again until he got that phone call. So I think those very, very minor details – played keyboards, he wasn’t religious, never had a mustache, and was budding heads with his father over studies – I still feel those are important details in terms of fleshing out the person, getting to understand who this person is.
GOSZTOLA: In telling Hesham’s story, one of the most profound aspects of your investigative report in my opinion is the way that the US government is seeking to — In effect they destroy his life. Can you talk about what they did to get to Zubaydah and then address whether you think the authorities thought they could get anything valuable out of Hesham or if they were just manipulating him?
LEOPOLD: I think that they’re completely manipulating him. So, he kept saying, look, the only reason that I was in immigration custody for as long as he was there was because FBI was micro-managing his case. Now, that is partially true. The FBI, according to the documents that I obtained—Even from immigration, a thousand pages, two hundred pages withheld and referred to two other government agencies, one of which is the FBI. Don’t know what the other government agency is—Clearly show that the FBI played a role in his immigration proceedings.
The question that came up as I was investigating this story and speaking to various government officials was just because Hani had a brother doesn’t mean Hesham knew what his brother was up to and that certainly would be true but then my followup would be then why after 9/11 did you swoop in and continue to interrogate him for months and months and months if you’re simply maintaining that he didn’t know anything. And there was no real answer that they were able to provide.
I think that clearly—In a nutshell, this story is about two brothers. One, Hesham, who was determined to pursue the American Dream. He disagreed profoundly with the politics of Saudi Arabia. He wanted to get out of there. He was not religious. He’s of Palestinian descent and I think it’s an important point to make that he married a Jewish woman. One would think that they would clash as a result. He was not someone that was religious by any means and did not really take up the cause, but he was vulnerable. He was vulnerable because when he was here he desperately wanted to be a US citizen and he still does.
The immigration issue, the status, the green card, was hanging over his head and the FBI knew it and they would use it time and time again almost as if they were dangling a carrot in him. You know, take a bite and we’ll help you out or maybe we’ll help you out. Either way, he was led to believe they would so he continued to take the bites out of the carrot that was dangled in front of him until his current wife, Jody, more or less said look their using you and he ended it.
At the end of the day, he really didn’t know anything so when they recruited him as an FBI informant to infiltrate these mosques in Portland—First of all, one mosque they were trying to get the imam, basically tie him to al Qaeda for more than a decade. That’s the Masjed As-Saber mosque in Portland. So, Hehsam made for the perfect recruit. You know, if you’re the FBI agent, this guy is a perfect recruit.
GOSZTOLA: I was particularly interested in this aspect of this story because, for one, it puts a human face on the fact that there are many people in this country who want to have citizen but it also raises the issue in my mind that there are probably many hundreds of people who are not being given their citizen papers, if you want to call them that, because they are potential informants who could be used by the government. So, I’m curious if you would have anything more to share on the way the FBI was using him — These are sting operations, right? These are like entrapment operations. Was he actually useful or was he just doing it because he was forced to do it?
LEOPOLD: There are two things. He did feel that they could help him. He was led to believe that and he believed the FBI would help him in terms of gaining citizenship. That’s very important to him and it’s very important to him as someone of Palestinian descent that grew up in Saudi Arabia, who basically did not have any rights. He did not have rights of someone who was born here or simply someone who would get a green card. He could live there forever and he would never get a green card in Saudi Arabia. The other thing is that, simply, it was difficult for him to say no to the FBI.
In terms of the job he was doing, he worked for the FBI for more than two years. The FBI agent, his handler, said we want you to go into these mosques and pay attention to the imam. I want you to find out where the money is going, what they’re using the money for, the names. Take a look at these pictures. He was shown hundreds of pictures—Somalis, Iraqis, Iranians. Tell us whether or not you see any of these people there, anyone involved in jihad or attempting to attack the US. So that’s what he did. He didn’t ask any questions, but for those two years he said he did not see anything suspicious. He did not come across anyone who was talking about or planning attacks yet the FBI continued to use for doing this job. Apparently they thought he was doing a great job. That’s what they told him.
Before he moved to Florida from Portland, his FBI handler said I want to introduce you to someone who is taking over for me because she was retiring and they wanted him to start infiltrating jihadist websites and to pose as someone who wanted to wage wild jihad against the United States. So, that gives us a little bit of a peek into what the FBI is apparently doing in terms of how they more or less set these people up. We’ve seen that with many recent developments with we’ve arrested someone for attempted detonation of a weapon of mass destruction when in fact it was fake. It clearly just shows it was more like these setups and he doesn’t know what happened to any of the people he looked at. Although I will say that there is one particular who attended this particular mosque in Portland, Masjed As-Saber, whose name is Mohamed Osman Mohamud. He has since been charged with terrorism. He was part of a sting operation. Hesham recalls actually being shown a picture of him but being shown a picture of him way, way earlier than when the FBI publicly claims it began monitoring him. Mohamud would have been 16 or so when Hesham was shown a picture of him.
GOSZTOLA: And then my final question is on your actual fact-finding effort to find this information. Can you talk about any of the struggle you had prying this information? You can get into the story of the FBI visiting Hesham in response to your FOIA request.
LEOPOLD: The reason that this story took as long as it did is because it required me to obtain documents and so I did file many Freedom of Information Act requests and I had to wait for responses. So, I filed FOIA requests with Immigration, with the FBI, with the State Department, with the NSA and I am still waiting for the FBI to turn over documents that they said they eventually would because Hesham authorized it. Finally, when I did receive his immigration file — And I also did receive a contact of his former lawyer, who hasn’t looked at this case or thought about it in over a decade. He sent me his entire case file and in this case file there were some bits and pieces of information that I was able to use to flesh out this bigger story. I mentioned this FBI report where there were missing pages that showed that these agents talked to Hesham’s wife so that was in there. It was a real struggle to get these documents. At least for the immigration file I had to wait eight months and he has an unusually large immigration file.
When I did file a FOIA request with the FBI, their response to my FOIA was strange. They sent an agent out. Headquarters sent an agent out to Hesham’s house to speak with him about my FOIA to find out whether I coerced him into signing an authorization form, to find out whether I tried to bribe him at all, to find out what he told me, why he needs me to get this story out, why he wants this story out there and then finally, if he were to consider dropping this FOIA request, perhaps the Bureau would get him the security needs. His wife, Jody, took meticulous notes. I was floored because I had never heard of that. I’ve never heard of the FBI literally sending a real live agent out to speak to somebody about a FOIA. And I asked open government advocates about it and they said they’ve never heard it because it’s expending quite a bit of resources to do something like that.
I responded by calling the FBI. The spokeswoman said this happens regularly. It’s routine. So, I filed a FOIA request because my name was used at this meeting and I filed a FOIA request basically requesting the document, notes, anything pertaining to this particular meeting. Actually, about two or three weeks ago, I received those notes. This visit took place in August and it’s the subject of a separate story that I put together on the same day this came out. And I’ve attached those documents to the story and in those documents, those three pages, which are redacted, it shows that the agent did go out there. His name is Bill Tidwell, although his name is redacted from the report. He spoke to Hesham about it. It doesn’t make any mention of anything else that I went into. It’s a very dry report. It’s just stunning. It’s really stunning.
GOSZTOLA: Now, do you view this as an intimidation of you or is it pretty apparent that they just thought that Hesham had asked you to go out and help him find this information?
LEOPOLD: I don’t think it was totally intimidation of me, but I think they were trying to talk him out of this. I think it was intimidation of him. As former FBI agent Coleen Rowley explained to me—she’s the whistleblower who exposed the FBI’s own pre-9/11 intelligence failures—She told me, look, informants are the FBI’s most prized possessions. It’s important for the FBI to keep them under control. When an informant gets made, gets upset, they call it going south. Hesham clearly went south. He no longer wanted anything to do with the Bureau and sought out someone who wanted to get his story told. And I was there to request his documents and this puts the FBI in a difficult position. It’s his file. He’s basically asking for his file. And not just for his work with the FBI but for everything. I asked for every single paper on him. You don’t see that happening very often, at least certainly in terms of a journalist. I’m not aware of it. I’m not sure they knew what to do so they paid him a visit.
GOSZTOLA: You see to have quite a history of submitting FOIA requests to the FBI. I’m just wondering what kind of total you have that are outstanding. I seem to think that you still have some that are related to the Occupy movement as well as the work that you are doing here, right?
LEOPOLD: Yeah, no, in fact it is funny that you mention that. I still have a request outstanding related to the Occupy Wall Street protest movement. The FBI claims they do not have any documents. I finally did ask for the processing notes, which I received from the FBI related to my FOIA request. And there are more or less pages that were withheld. It doesn’t tell me much. I can tell you I’ve filed dozens of FOIA requests with the FBI and I probably have received two complete responses. So, it really is a waiting game. Even with the notes with this report, I have to appeal that because they redacted it. Hesham gave me permission to request his documents. The fact that they continue to redact this, claim privacy issues—He waived his privacy rights. And that is obviously what led to the lawsuit. I filed a lawsuit with the FBI for failing to provide me with an estimated date of completion. That estimated date of completion actually pertains to Hesham’s case. I didn’t reveal that because it would have revealed the story I was working on but it certainly is something that — They’ve identified twelve hundred pages. Last time I heard about it, it was with a disclosure analyst. So, I have not had luck with the FBI, much luck, particularly when it comes to asking for specific documents that I know what I am asking for.
If I can just add a couple things is that, staying on the Abu Zubaydah, I filed with the FBI within the past three or four months I’d say five separate FOIA requests related to Abu Zubaydah, the alleged terrorist. I asked for notes that are supposedly in an FBI safe in New York that Ali Soufan, the former FBI agent who first interrogated Zubaydah in a black site prison that he claims is away in an FBI safe in New York. I filed a request for other notes. Some memoranda that was referenced in an FBI Inspector General report all pertaining to Abu Zubaydah’s interrogation. The responses I’ve received from the FBI is that I need to get Abu Zubaydah’s permission. I need him to sign the same authorization form. He’s in Guantanamo. So, I need him to sign the same authorization form that his brother signed in order for them to even consider that FOIA request. So, I am not having luck but that’s why the appeals process is important.