Archive for May, 2011

While the administration and the media have focused much of the public’s attention on the intelligence gold mine recovered by Navy SEALs during the Osama bin Laden operation, it is important to remember a less dramatic, but important angle that both the government and the press can look into: the financial lifeline that allowed the Al Qaeda leader and his family to build and live in that compound for years.

Al Qaeda has demonstrated it has the knowledge and savvy to use the financial and banking system to achieve its ends. The 9/11 plot, which investigators believe cost the organization between $400,000-500,000 to carry out, was financed almost entirely by Al Qaeda using a combination of cash couriers, conventional wire transfers and banking methods in the United States and overseas. Reforms implemented in the aftermath of 9/11 have made it more difficult to use a financial or banking institution to launder or transfer funds for nefarious purposes. By focusing on the compound, investigators may be able to collect more information about Al Qaeda, which could potentially be just as promising as any of the data from the raid.

Anyone who has ever bought a property or built a home knows that the entire process is inherently a team sport, requiring the participation of multiple individuals to see through to the end.  Simply put, Osama bin Laden couldn’t have bought the land, filed the paperwork, hired people to design and build the compound, overseen the construction, set up heating, water and electricity, and pay for bills, taxes and living expenses by himself. At every step of the way, he needed intermediaries to do it on his behalf and pay for the goods received or services rendered. Separating the individual components necessary to build that compound and make it function may uncover possible Al Qaeda operatives, calculate the costs, and possibly get a sense of the organization’s financial state at the time the compound was being built and while bin Laden was living there.

According to property records obtained by the Associated Press, a man named Mohammed Arshad bought adjoining plots of land in 2004-2005 to build the compound for $48,000.   Two of the plots were purchased using an unidentified middleman who may have passed them on to Arshad – one of several possible aliases he used – who may have been bin Laden’s courier that inadvertently tipped off U.S. intelligence officials to the location and existence of the compound.

The courier and his brother who lived in the compound are literally a dead end from an interrogation perspective – both men were killed during the raid. However, the money trail may still yield promising leads.  Unless the plots of land were bought using cash, there would have been some type of transaction involving at least one financial institution, whether it was paid as a wire transfer or a check.  Following the money from the transaction to its original source may yield more leads: the name or alias of an operative or holding company, contact information, or other persons who helped to facilitate the deal.

After the acquisition of the land, it would have been necessary to hire professionals to design and build the compound, meager as it was. Gul Mohammed, identified by The Sun as the builder of the compound, was quoted by the tabloid saying he never saw bin Laden or knew he was living there, and described the oversight of the project saying, “Only one or sometimes two would come to supervise my work – and they never cared about money.” Unless Al Qaeda was somehow able to keep the job in house with someone affiliated with or trusted by the organization, checking with architects, contractors, or construction firms in Abbottabad or nearby cities may generate even further leads on the amount of money paid and who – possibly the courier and his brother based on media accounts by the previous owners of the land and the builder – was responsible for overseeing the entire project.

Although photographs of the compound and the video of Bin Laden watching himself on TV show that it was far from luxurious, housing and feeding as many as three dozen people required some basic utilities for the compound, specifically water, electricity and heating.  A private or government-owned utility company presumably would have been responsible for installing the necessary infrastructure during the construction process, and would have issued bills and collected revenues from one of the residents or an intermediary.

Moreover, the courier or another person may have had to pay some type of taxes on the property, on a one-time or recurring basis. If so, corresponding records might exist for the compound in a federal or local tax agency in Pakistan.

By taking these possible leads, in conjunction with accounts from local merchants who provided goods and services to the residents of the compound, it may be possible to calculate an estimate for how much it cost Al Qaeda to build and maintain the property. This information, if cross-referenced with previously available intelligence about the organization or some of the new material obtained during the raid, could help government officials create a picture of Al Qaeda’s financial structure and health during the past few years. By doing so, it may be possible to better assess its capability to carry out an operation or to function as an organization.

Bin Laden had been living there for at least five years, President Obama told 60 Minutes, and he didn’t do it alone: “We think that there had to be some sort of support network for bin Laden inside of Pakistan. But we don’t know who or what that support network was.” Excluding the question of whether or not anyone in the Pakistani government was involved, the existence of the compound alone and all that was necessary to build it and keep it operational for its residents proves bin Laden had a support network in his personal circle for his immediate daily needs.

To use an old cliché, money makes the world go round. Support networks for any criminal or terrorist organization require money to function.  Looking into how much it cost to build this compound and where the money came from could yield more leads on Al Qaeda worth pursuing.  Such information may contribute to achieving President Obama’s objective of “badly disabling” the group, because history has shown that understanding and disrupting the financial lifelines of criminal or terrorist networks can be just as damaging to them as bombs and bullets.

Advertisements

The New York Post must have had a field day putting together this front page…

What does a guy cooped up in a house for five years with multiple wives do to pass the time? Apparently, he (or someone else living in the compound) had a porno collection:

(Reuters) – A stash of pornography was found in the hideout of Osama bin Laden by the U.S. commandos who killed him, current and former U.S. officials said on Friday.

The pornography recovered in bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, consists of modern, electronically recorded video and is fairly extensive, according to the officials, who discussed the discovery with Reuters on condition of anonymity.

The officials said they were not yet sure precisely where in the compound the pornography was discovered or who had been viewing it. Specifically, the officials said they did not know if bin Laden himself had acquired or viewed the materials.

Even though no one knows whose material this was, or if bin Laden himself ever viewed it, U.S. officials have been brutally effective at chipping away at bin Laden’s carefully constructed image of a pious man risking it all for the cause. In the 12 days since the raid, we’ve found out that he was caught flat-footed by U.S. Navy SEALs, was obsessed with his self-image in the media, and now we discover this. It’s a good PR/public diplomacy pushback at bringing down bin Laden’s mystique and showing him for who and what he really was.

Not to mention that this discovery is going to be fodder for every late night comedian in the world. Even the press is having fun with this. As Politico reporter Josh Gerstein put it: “Readying my #FOIA for bin Laden’s porn. Fear JWatch will beat me to it. May require ProPublica or NYT to delve into it”

For those of you who are interested in the financial angle of terrorism, national security, and organized crime as I am, check out this article that ran in Foreign Policy yesterday.

The report is a doozy (PDF file)…  Will live-blog details as I read them, including quotes and page numbers as necessary (Note: page numbers are based on their number in the PDF file, not the number that appears at the bottom of each).  Watch this space.

REACTIONS:

Statement from Sen. Ensign’s attorney Paul Coggins: “I am confident that the Department of Justice will conclude that Senator Ensign fully complied with the law.”

Separately, spokespersons for the FEC and the Department of Justice declined to comment on the Boxer/Isakson letters referring the case to them.

REPORT DETAILS:

CREW gets a shoutout… Melanie Sloan takes a victory lap: “The Committee’s investigation began after it received a complaint on June 24, 2009, from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington ( CREW ). CREW supplemented that complaint on October 6, 2009. These filings presented allegations of sexual harassment/employment discrimination, post-employment ban violations, and issues related to payments to Douglas and Cynthia Hampton, Senator Ensign s former Administrative Assistant and campaign treasurer.” (p. 8 of the file)

Credible evidence of violations: “Based on the record in this matter, the Special Counsel respectfully submits that there is substantial credible evidence that provides substantial cause to conclude that Senator Ensign violated Senate Rules and federal civil and criminal laws, and engaged in improper conduct reflecting upon the Senate, thus betraying the public trust and bringing discredit to the Senate.” (p. 10)

Ensign plays hardball: “When a prominent Nevada constituent declined to hire Mr. Hampton, Senator Ensign instructed John Lopez, his Chief of Staff, to jack him up to high heaven and inform the constituent that he was cut off from Senator Ensign and could not contact him any longer.” (p. 10) Update: More details…  the constituent was identified as Nevada political consultant Sig Rogich.  Looking back on the episode, Lopez later testified: “I just wanted to mention that when the Senator asked me to do that, I really felt like this is wrong. I remember really feeling like that
was abusing the office, you know, cutting someone off from official action because he didn’t hire [Hampton], I thought I had qualms about what I was asked to do.” (p. 29)

Violations of One-Year Ban: Hampton “improperly contacted” on at least 12 different client matters, initiated at least 30 contacts to Ensign’s office and other Senate offices during the one-year ban period. (p. 10)

Office Policies Included Shredding and Gmail Accounts: “Before and after Mr. Hampton’s termination and during the time period when the Senator was helping Mr. Hampton get clients, Senator Ensign instituted office policies that had the effect of making Mr. Hampton’s contacts harder to detect, including a shredding policy, discouraging use of official Senate email accounts in favor of Gmail, and directing that all inquiries of the Committee go through Mr. Lopez, the person he directed to interact with Mr. Hampton.” (p. 11)

$96K Severance Payment: The $96,000 paid to the Hamptons from the Ensign Family Trust Fund constitued a severance payment. Ensign’s affidavit to the FEC saying it wasn’t severance payment is false. (p. 11) Update: Affidavit re: $96K signed by Ensign’s parents saying money was part of pattern of them giving money to the Hamptons, including all expenses paid trip to Hawaii in 2006.  Report calls these affidavits “misleading and potentially false.” (p. 12)

Potential Obstruction of Justice Violations: Ensign deleted documents and files knowing they were likely to be subject to legal claim. Also deleted his personal Gmail account which he used instead of his Senate account. Contents from Gmail account could not be reviewed for the investigation. Ensign deleted at least 5 documents after receiving document retention notice from Ethics Committee in October of 2009.  (p. 13)

Violation of Office Policies: Report says Ensign violated his own office policies regarding sexual harassment and fraternization. Report says Ensign engaged in behaviors that would have led to the termination of one of his employees according to his own office policy. (p. 13)

Affair Began After Burglary: After burglars broke into the Hamptons’ Nevada home, Ensign allowed them to stay at their place until the door was repaired and Cynthia Hampton felt safe to go back to the house. The affair began shortly after the Hamptons moved into the Ensign home. (p. 18)

Losing His Mind: When Ensign began pursuing Cynthia Hampton, “She asked Senator Ensign if he lost [his] mind, and he replied yes.” (p. 18)

Late Night Fodder Material: Hampton’s reaction after finding out about the affair – “When the cars were parked in the airport parking lot, Mr. Hampton jumped out of his car and chased Senator Ensign in the airport parking lot.” (p. 19)

What Happens in Vegas: Ensign and Hampton ended the affair around Christmas of 2007, but resumed again a month later. They would have trysts in Vegas hotel rooms reserved in her name, because “it always had to be under my name, it could never be under his name.” (p. 19)

Big Phone Bill: Hampton found out affair was continuing in February 2008 after discovering text messages on Ensign phone during CODEL trip to Iraq and Afghanistan. The phone bills for the calls during the trip totaled nearly $1,000. (p. 19-20)

“Put Your Pants On”: Sen. Tom Coburn, Hampton and others confront Ensign about the affair on Valentine’s Day, 2008. Ensign writes letter to Cynthia Hampton breaking it off but later admits it was a lie. Two days later, Hampton sees his wife’s and Ensign’s cars parked outside a hotel near their neighborhood and calls Ensign spiritual advisor Tim Coe. Coe calls Ensign, telling him I know exactly where you are. I know exactly what you are doing. Put your pants on and go home.” A few days later, Ensign tells Hampton he loves Cynthia and wants to marry her, and that he can’t work for him anymore. (p. 20)

I Wish I Knew How To Quit You: Ensign separates from his wife and moves in with his parents, and the affair continues through July 2008. Ensign bought two cell phones so they could communicate directly, and created fake Yahoo addresses for both of them.  Coe has Sen. Tom Coburn call Ensign’s father and tell him about the affair.  According to him, the call happened, and Ensign called him in a rage after hearing about his father. (p. 20-21)

Not a Happy Ending: The report notes that Cynthia Hampton has filed for divorce and bankruptcy proceedings, and is moving to California to work for an unidentified Christian organization. (p. 22)

Leaving Las Vegas: Plan to separate Hamptons from Ensign included possibility of moving them to Colorado and having Ensign take over mortgage on Hampton’s home in Vegas or buying it outright. Ensign not happy about idea of buying the house, says his father won’t help with the finances of helping the Hamptons relocate. (p. 22-23)

Coburn’s Role: “According to Mr. Coe, Doug was more confident talking to Senator Coburn about finances than he was us, and Mr. Hampton thought Senator Coburn could deliver John s father, who was wealthy. Senator Coburn played a support role, and encouraged Senator Ensign to consider the plans developed by Mr. Coe and others regarding transition and separation.” (p. 23)

Not-So-Golden-Parachute: During a lunch in Vegas, Ensign tells NRSC aides Michael and Lindsey Slanker that Hampton is leaving his office, but lies about the reasons why. The Slankers come up with idea of having Hampton work at their political campaign consulting firm November Inc. as a “platform” for his work. If Hampton could get clients, he could use November Inc. as “the business card.” Ensign’s response to the idea was “giddy” and he immediately called Hampton to tell him of the plan. (p. 23-24)

Pink Slip: Ensign fires Cynthia Hampton from her job in March of 2008, saying his father and wife wouldn’t allow her to continue working for him. (p. 24)

Severance Pay: The $96K severance package was calculated based on 2 months’ pay for him, a year’s pay for her. Here’s where the plot thickens: “The two discussed gift rules and tax law, and splitting up the payments into various amounts, totaling $96,000, as a way to avoid the payment of taxes on the amount.” (p. 25)

Vacation Money: In addition to the $96K, Hampton received $6K in his final paycheck from Ensign’s Senate office for 12 unused vacation days, which in fact he may have used. Report notes “his work attendance was significantly less in the months leading up to April 2008. Therefore, there were likely no vacation days available to Mr. Hampton upon his departure from the Senate.” (p. 27)

The I-word: Ensign’s chief of staff John Lopez testified before the Ethics Committee Special Counsel under a grant of immunity. (p. 28)

Not a Coincidence: “The timing of Senator Ensign’s interest in the destruction of records and communication with oversight committees coincides with the affair with Cindy Hampton, and Mr. Hampton s departure.” (p. 29)

Preparing to Lobby: “Mr. Hampton, because of his salary level, was required under Senate Rule 37 to notify the Ethics Committee within three days of commencing any negotiations for prospective private employment, and to immediately recuse himself from legislative matters affecting that prospective employer. Committee Staff and Special Counsel were unable to find evidence that Mr. Hampton ever filed such a notification.” Hampton left the Senate on May 1, 2008, and the report notes “Mr. Hampton was banned from contact with the Senate effective May 2, 2008,” because of ethics rules. However, the report says that just five days later, he e-mailed Ensign aide David Quinalty regarding FAA issues on behalf of a Nevada client. Ensign’s legislative staff figured out the implications of the email pretty quickly.

“Mr. Quinalty testified that in every way I could think of, [this email] struck me as inappropriate and odd and something I should take note of. Mr. Quinalty immediately took the email to Pam Thiessen. Ms. Thiessen testified that upon review of the email, she concluded that it look[ed] like he [Hampton] broke the law, broke the ethics ban. Ms. Thiessen had Mr. Quinalty print out multiple copies, and gave one to Mr. Mulvihill, with instructions to take it to the attention of the Ethics Committee. Ms. Thiessen then spoke with Mr. Lopez, and stated that on its face [the email] was illegal. So I told John Lopez this is illegal activity, that it’s got to stop, and that Doug Hampton was being cut off from the leg. [legislative] shop. Ms. Thiessen then announced to the entire legislative staff that Mr. Hampton had broken the law and no one was to help him. Members of Senator Ensign’s legislative staff recalled this announcement in their testimony.”(p. 31-32)

Compartmentalized Contacts: Ensign and Lopez agree to limit all dealings between Hampton and the office to the two of them, effectively removing the rest of the staff from the process. Lopez told him about the ethics concerns about Hampton’s lobbying efforts, to which Ensign responded with what Lopez described as a “see no evil, hear no evil” attitude. Lopez was ignorant about the affair until Ensign called a staff meeting to announce it in 2009. (p. 34-35)

Coburn the Negotiator?: Hampton’s lawyer testifies that Coburn acted as a negotiator between him and Ensign for a possible multimillion dollar settlement on behalf of his clients. Coburn denies it in testimony to the committee. This discrepancy could come back to haunt Coburn. Stories with headlines like “Tom Coburn gets new scrutiny in Ensign scandal”  and a lead paragraph alleging “the Oklahoma Republican may have not been completely candid when questioned by Senate investigators about the still unfolding scandal,” are not good. (p. 44-45)

Going Public: After hearing of Ensign’s rejection of the offer, Hampton decided to go to the media with his case, writing a letter to Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly. A few days later, Hampton forwarded a copy of the letter to Sen. Rick Santorum, at the time a paid Fox News contributor. Santorum tipped off Ensign, and this forced him to make a public statement admitting to the affair in June of 2009. (p. 45)

Semantics About Severance: Staff and counsel reviewing his prepared text announcing the affair suggested removing all references to severance or payments. Attorney Chris Gober explained the legal concerns in an email to Ensign’s communications director:

“[t]he statement, as currently written, raises a host of
potential criminal issues for the Senator. The language
draws a direct connection between the affair, the
termination of the staffers, and the severance payment.
Although the statement attempts to legitimize the reason for
the payment, it’s awfully odd that he made the payments
from personal funds. If this statement doesn’t get the
attention of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, then nothing will.” (p. 48)

Questions About Ensign FEC Affidavits: The report alleges that Senator Ensign and his parents may have been less than truthful in affidavits they filed with the FEC regarding the $96K. “The affidavits of the senior Ensigns and of Senator Ensign appear to be misleading and potentially false on the central issue of the FEC investigation the nature of the $96,000 payment from the senior Ensigns to the Hamptons and the purported pattern of generosity from the senior Ensigns to the Hamptons.” The Special Counsel says that inconsistencies between facts and affidavits merit further investigation by DOJ and FEC. (p. 51-52)

The Senate Ethics Committee just published its findings on the John Ensign investigation.  It also published letters referring the case to the Department of Justice and the Federal Election Commission saying Ensign and others had violated laws relating to their relevant jurisdictions.

Stay tuned for more details.

Good find from the Guardian:

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, they eschewed most modern technology, including television and music players.

But in the latest sign of the hardline movement’s rapprochement with at least some areas of the modern world, the Taliban have embraced microblogging.

Their Twitter feed, @alemarahweb, pumps out several messages each day, keeping 224 followers up to date with often highly exaggerated reports of strikes against the “infidel forces” and the “Karzai puppet regime”.

Most messages by the increasingly media-savvy movement are in Pashtu, with links to news stories on the elaborate and multilingual website of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as the Taliban’s shadow government likes to style itself.

On Thursday, the feed broke into English for the first time, with a tweet about an attack on police in Farah province. “Enemy attacked in Khak-e-Safid, 6 dead,” read the message.

There is not much lively banter between the “emirate” and its Twitter followers, save for a cheerful “asalam alekum” sent last week to the Kavkaz Centre, a militant news site covering jihad in the Caucasus.

Don’t be surprised if military and intelligence officials are now trying to figure out how to get them to use foursquare