Ever since fellow agents accused Gamal Abdel Hafiz of refusing to wear a wire to record other Muslims, one of the nation’s best counter-terrorism agents lived a nightmare in the glare of the national media. Trouble was; the claims were never true, a small fact that was left out – until now.
Gamal Abdel-Hafiz was once one of the most valuable counter-terrorism assets the FBI had.
He turned up the names of half the Al Qaida conspirators who planned the USS Cole bombing in 2001. He was the agent who, with a single skillfully executed interrogation in Bahrain, broke open the Lackawanna Six case in 2002, which President Bush touted as the biggest success to that
point in the War on Terror. He’d worked closely with the New York-based I 49 squad to help bust one of the Africa embassy bombers. He also happened to be the first ever Muslim Arab immigrant FBI agent, on a first-name basis with an ever appreciative Director Louis Freeh.
But by 2003, he’d been fired and disgraced, all but branded a traitor repeatedly in the national media. Two Chicago FBI agents had gone public questioning the loyalty of their Egypt-born and educated Muslim colleague, on program such as ABC’s Primetime and The O’Reilly Factor, and in the pages of Newsweek, Time and The Wall Street Journal. Everywhere. The alarming story they framed surely merited press scrutiny coming as it had from two active field agents: A Muslim FBI agent – Abdel-Hafiz – had on two occasions refused direct orders, on religious grounds, to wear a hidden body recorder to interview targets of terrorism investigations during the late 1990s. One of these investigations involved possible money laundering to Osama bin Ladin’s Al Qaeda. “A Muslim does not record another Muslim,” he’d supposedly been caught saying in a moment of indiscretion.
Then, the story line went, rather than investigate Abdel-Hafiz as a double agent, politically correct FBI bureaucrats promoted him to a sensitive frontline post in Saudi Arabia, where he was presumed to be doing national security damage in the critical time after 9-11. That unchallenged theme buzzed through the Internet and mainstream media well into 2003. Abdel-Hafiz was a traitor. He was a mole. Abdel-Hafiz should be strung up.
Throughout the humiliating public drubbings, Abdel-Hafiz had followed orders to keep his mouth shut, which only conspired to support the appearance of guilt. But in October of that year, he let a reporter into his suburban Dallas home to finally speak at length about the media charges of treasonous acts.
“Unfortunately, because I respected my agency, and I respected my obligation to my agency to not respond, it was taken for granted that I was guilty of these accusations,” he said. “A lot of people in the media and on the Internet took it and flew with it, and they spoke out of ignorance.”
He turned his eyes to the wall of a home office. “The proudest day of my life,” he said with a noticeably foreign accent, looking at the photo of himself shaking the hand of then Director Freeh. It was 1996. Graduation day at Quantico. “It really was a very emotional moment for me, knowing I was the very first Muslim FBI agent in the history of the FBI. It was really something that I will never forget.”
Occasionally, social inhibitions collapsed in a flaring anger that help explain his actions in the years since.
“I did not only lose my job. I lost my dignity, my reputation,” he barked at one point, slapping a palm hard on a desk. “I lost self respect, for myself and my family, because of the accusations.”
It was all “a fabricated lie!”
There was scant press notice when Abdel-Hafiz was reinstated to the FBI a few months later. Today, the reputed traitor is back in counter-terrorism, quietly working out of the Dallas field office. He can’t talk publicly anymore, as an agent. But he’s been waging a war in addition to the one on global terrorism ever since – in the Texas court system.
He aims to reclaim a reputation he says has remains sullied in the collective public mind, with defamation lawsuits against his former colleagues and some big-name TV personalities: O’Reilly and ABC correspondent Brian Ross among others.
The FBI agent has been kicking up a lot of dust, dragging people like O’Reilly, Ross and their producers into deposition rooms outside of public view, tearing apart their reporting, challenging their reputations.
From the depositions and subpoenaed reporters’ notes, as well as interviews with a broad spectrum of current and former FBI officials, a maddeningly story emerges. It is that, as Abdel-Hafiz said, the press reports about him were mostly dead wrong. About his supposed refusal to secretly record Muslim targets. About all of it.
The national press corps failed by brushing off or failing to explore information the FBI repeatedly offered about the Abdel-Hafiz affair at the height of coverage. The FBI handled the story as well as it could, given that any definitive refutation of what was being reported would have required divulging classified material. But the FBI had in fact cooperated to a surprising degree; its message just wasn’t embraced.
As producer notes and depositions show, the bureau held lengthy background briefings and released statements brimming with compelling leads that begged exploration but were instead inexplicably scoffed away. Key among these FBI-provided rebuttals was the drowned out assertion that wearing a wire to record certain subjects would have compromised a unique operation Abdel-Hafiz was conducting in Dallas in the years leading up to 9-11. Americans were left to wonder if the FBI was compromised in the nation’s moment of peril when no one bothered to ask what that mission was or how ordering Abdel-Hafiz to wear a wire might compromise it.
Another FBI rebuttal contrasted starkly to the repeated media assertions that Abdel-Hafiz had refused direct orders; it was his commanders, not he, who had cast the decision not wear a wire, again because of the risk to the Dallas operation no one wanted to know about.
And lastly, the bureau’s citation as further grounds for not wearing a wire was that Abdel-Hafiz had endured threats to his family’s life, both in the U.S. and in Egypt. Though roundly ignored, it turns out that these lethal threats, considering the Islamists who were issuing them, had a high degree of merit. But the details never made air.
Had reporters bothered to follow up on any of the FBI’s offerings, the resulting facts would most certainly have stood in the way of a good story. Instead, says retired Danny Defenbaugh, who headed the Dallas FBI field office and was Abdel-Hafiz’s boss at the time, “It was a shark frenzy. They [media outlets] decided to just go ahead and trash him.”
Nothing in Gamal Abdel-Hafiz’s background suggests he ever harbored any sympathy toward radical Islam.
He was the youngest of seven children, six brothers and a sister, raised in Cairo’s small but relatively privileged middle class. His father held a partnership in a textile factory that supported regular expansions of the family’s five-story home. He was a deeply religious man who’d memorized the Koran.
But Abdel-Hafiz’s father, who had served in the military under British colonial rule, had picked up a thing or two in his own youth that would turn him against the anti-west, pan-Arab ideology that would take hold of Egypt under President Gamal Nasser. Abdel-Hafiz’s father believed in the value of secular education because, as he often preached, it was the only way to avoid the poverty many Egyptians suffered.
His brothers and sisters received public education, but Abdel-Hafiz attended a premier Christian school run by the Coptic Church, the church of Egypt. Later, he attended a private high school run by the Greek Orthodox Church. Growing up in this diverse environment insulated Abdel-Hafiz from the radical Islam preached in some mosques, and his father saw no place for political ideology in the family’s religion. “Half my friends throughout my education were Christians,” Abdel-Hafiz said in 2003. “It eliminated the barrier between Islam and Christianity.”
After graduation, Abdel-Hafiz drifted. His father pushed him to become an English interpreter. So Abdel-Hafiz enrolled in the 1,000-year-old Al-Azhar University, not because it was an Islamic school but because it was the only institution in the country that offered a degree in “simultaneous interpretation.” The university, which offered secular programs in medicine and engineering, was not known as an incubator for lethal radical movements, although it has matriculated the founding leaders of some violent underground organizations, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and the Black Hand.
Abdel-Hafiz settled into more benevolent territory on campus – the languages department.
The popular young man was soon elected to the university’s apolitical student union. Friends say he had a charismatic, almost bubbly personality that drew people closer, invited their confidence. He had a stern side as a moderately observant Muslim. He never drank or gambled or chased women, and he tried to go to the Mosque on Fridays. Still, he often let loose his high-pitched giggle, and he never forgot a name.
It was as a student leader that he heard about Mohammad Elmougy, another young man studying English and one who, coincidentally, years later, would move to Dallas and rekindle the friendship. At university, Elmougy one day argued with an autocratic faculty member. The teacher retaliated by essentially deleting Elmougy’s grades for the year. Abdel-Hafiz came to Elmougy’s defense, at considerable risk to his own academic future. The intervention was unsuccessful. But Elmougy never forgot it. “He has a strong sense of right and wrong,” Elmougy says. “That’s always been the kind of man he is.”
With his father’s financial help, Abdel-Hafiz and a group of friends traveled to New York in 1980 to take more translation classes. In 1984, following graduation and a compulsory stint in the Egyptian army, he immigrated to a Dallas suburb. He got involved in a local mosque. Before long, the same appealing personality traits that had made him a popular student leader in college were working for him again. He was embraced in mosque social circles and settled into Dallas for the long haul. Elmougy, now a hotelier, immigrated some years later to the Dallas area and was pleased to find that his old college advocate was once again well-regarded.
“He was involved and well-respected,” Elmougy says. “There were a lot of times that feuding people would go to him to work out their problems. I used to joke with him that he knew everybody, and that it would always take an hour to leave the mosque because of everyone always wanting to chit chat with Gamal.”
He landed a job with Southland Corporation as a management trainee for 7-Eleven. He took over unprofitable stores in some of Fort Worth’s toughest neighborhoods and turned them around. His new wife, Bertie Ann Martin, a West Texas native, worked as a cashier alongside him.
Neil Dahl, Abdel-Hafiz’s boss at Southland, says his charm with customers, work ethic and the sandwiches he and Bertie prepared each day never failed to turn troubled stores in top performers.
“People would stand in lines just for those sandwiches of theirs,” Dahl says. “He was always such a happy type guy. You never saw Gamal frowning.”
Abdel-Hafiz’s ability to handle thieves and root out dishonest employees, while also endearing himself to the community, soon put him at the top of Southland’s salary range. But he longed for a less stressful, more cerebral line of work. He quit Southland in March 1990, the same month he received his U.S. citizenship, and began a yearlong contract position as a translator in Saudi Arabia for an American company that provided fitness training to Saudi air defense personnel. He was in Saudi Arabia during the build-up to the Gulf War. After the start of the U.S. air campaign, the newly minted American felt compelled to contact the American consulate to offer his services free of charge to the American troops. But the war ended before his application could be processed.
The Saudi contract ended in April 1991, and Abdel-Hafiz returned to Fort Worth to work for awhile again at Southland while sending applications out to government agencies in the market for Arabic translators. Few were – until the first terror attack by radical Islamists on U.S. soil in 1993.
Terrorists had almost taken down the World Trade Center in New York. The FBI, suddenly desperate for Arabic language translators, hired Abdel-Hafiz and assigned him almost exclusively to the investigation and prosecution of a fellow Egyptian known as the Blind Sheik, Omar Abdel-Rahman, for the bombing.
Abdel-Hafiz and his wife packed their bags for New York.
For nearly a year, Abdel-Hafiz put in 70- to 80-hour weeks interpreting the surveillance gathered during the FBI’s most intensive terrorism investigation to date. Outside of the bureau, his work was unknown until the day he took the stand as a prosecution witness in January 1995. The next day, informants reported a credible threat against Abdel-Hafiz that would haunt him for years and partly account for his later reluctance to wear a wire in certain circumstances.
Andy McCarthy, the lead prosecutor in the government’s trial, called him to the office and laid it out. An FBI informant inside the Flatbush Avenue Mosque had overhead discussions among close associates of the sheik. The men were upset that a Muslim and fellow Egyptian would take the stand against the Sheik, who happened also to be an alum of Al-Azhar University. They also believed Abdel-Hafiz was no translator but rather a secret intelligence officer for the pro-American Egyptian government. They planned to assassinate Abdel-Hafiz and possibly target his family back in Egypt.
McCarthy offered to let Abdel-Hafiz withdraw from the case so he wouldn’t have to testify. McCarthy said he’d provide Abdel-Hafiz a two-man protective detail and the costs of relocating him to a city of his choice. Abdel-Hafiz refused.
“I’m not going to let someone force me to change my whole life against my will,” Abdel-Hafiz said. “Threats like this are part of my job.”
Still, he feared greatly for his family in Egypt. He called his older brother in Cairo that night and warned him that the Sheik’s organization might try to harm the family. Abdel-Hafiz asked his brother to move to a safe place his college file, which contained family information and a home address.
He went on to testify against the Blind Sheik 18 times over the next 10 months. A jury convicted the Sheik of masterminding the attack and sentenced him to life in prison in October 1995.
The World Trade Center bomber highlighted the FBI’s need for Muslim Arab agents. It had none. And this was by design, even if veteran agents publicly deny so. The FBI considered Muslims to be unreliable, more likely to become moles, and favored Arab Christians as interpreters instead. But that thinking had to change, says Oliver “Buck” Revell, who headed the FBI’s counter-terrorism division for 11 years during the 1980s and 1990s.
“We’ve used Italian-American agents, who spoke fluent Sicilian, to penetrate the mob,” Revell says. “We’ve used Russian-speaking agents to penetrate the Russian mob. That’s the same thing you have to do with any ethnically separated population. And collecting information from within the Arab-American community suddenly became very important after ‘93.”
FBI recruiters sought out Abdel-Hafiz, who was already in the fold and had proven himself capable and cool under fire on a nationally watched case. He graduated from the academy in 1996, the same year he and Bertie divorced, citing irreconcilable differences. A video of the graduation ceremony shows Abdel-Hafiz smiling broadly, striding straight-backed across the stage and, to the applause of his fellow graduates, receiving his badge and certificate from FBI Director Freeh.
When they asked where he wanted to be based, Abdel-Hafiz didn’t hesitate. He was heading to the admiring community of Arab Muslims he’d left behind in Dallas, this time toting a sidearm and shiny new badge.
Dallas at the time seethed with radical Islamists. It had served as the communications hub for the planning of the 1993 World Trade Center attack. One Dallas grocery clerk, Eyad Ismoil, was convicted of driving the explosives-bearing truck into the basement. His associates were still here. So was Wadih el Hage, a top Osama bin Ladin lieutenant later convicted of U.S. embassy bombings in Africa. Also in Dallas, allegedly, were leaders of the terrorist group Hamas. American and Israeli intelligence investigated Islamic charities in Richardson believed to comprise the U.S. headquarters for Hamas. (One of the charities, the Holy Land Foundation, is set to go to trial this July.) Hezbollah sympathizers were operating, too, running clandestine fundraising in North and East Texas in the late 1990s.
To deal with the activity, the Dallas field office built the largest joint counter-terrorism task force in the country. When Abdel-Hafiz joined it, a deep distrust of the force had spread through the Muslim community and reliable informants were nonexistent. The situation was hampering intelligence. In Abdel-Hafiz, FBI strategists found a unique commodity to be exploited. He was observant, already well regarded in the Islamic communities of North Texas, and with a lengthy rolodex.
“He was honest before he worked for the FBI, and everybody knew about his honesty,” says Jamal Qaddurra, a longtime activist at Abdel-Hafiz’s old mosque in Arlington. “And even after he came back as an FBI agent, I can promise you that everybody, including members of every mosque, approached him, talked to him, and invited him to their homes. The comfort zone was there.”
Knowing this, the FBI gave Abdel a role it had given no other agent, past or present. It would be this assignment that others in some distant field offices chose would seem not to comprehend when it was cited as a reason for Abdel-Hafiz not to wiretap other Muslims.
His mission was to circulate in his community, openly advertising himself as a member of the FBI. He would give assurances that their common religious bond made him trustworthy to take information in confidence.
It wasn’t long before field offices across the country were calling on Abdel-Hafiz to use his network of connections to confirm associations or make identifications for their own investigations. Word also spread among other cities’ Muslim populations: There was a Dallas agent could be trusted. “They would talk to him,” says Charlie Storey, a retired Dallas cop who for years worked on task force counter-terrorism cases with the FBI. “I can remember a lot of things that he did that no one else would have been able to accomplish.”
Soon, information began flowing to the FBI because of Abdel-Hafiz. “He’d make the introductions, and our agents just ran on it on their own,” says retired FBI agent Tino Perez, Abdel-Hafiz’s former supervisor on the international terrorism task force. “He helped a lot with stuff like that.”
The role “was a no-brainer,” Defenbaugh, who headed the Dallas office from 1998 to 2002, says.
Still, Abdel-Hafiz’s mission didn’t sit well with everyone, especially the Palestinians. People involved with the Holy Land Foundation, for instance, asked that Abdel-Hafiz be banned from one mosque. Mohammad Suleman has been the Richardson Mosque’s president for 35 years. He recalls some of the Palestinians complaining, “Do you know an FBI agent is coming to the mosque? Do you know he’s spying on the mosque, profiling us, reporting our names and taking pictures?”
Some did more than just complain to the leadership of their mosques. A second threat to Abdel Hafiz’s life surfaced during this period. An FBI informant reported that a reputed Hamas activist in Chicago asked people in Dallas to take photos of Abdel-Hafiz and gather information on his new wife, Amal, whom Abdel-Hafiz met on a trip to Cairo in 1998; and Abdel- Hafiz’s relatives in Egypt. The plan was to be ready to move against Allah’s traitor to. For the second time, Abdel-Hafiz became keenly aware of his family’s vulnerability, both in the U.S. and back in Egypt.
But for all of its value, Abdel-Hafiz’s Dallas assignment had split his loyalties between two adversarial worlds and put them on a collision course. He was working where he prayed, and that work sometimes required him to employ deceptive, secretive methods inside the same community that trusted him not to. His FBI overseers in Dallas had determined that Abdel Hafiz would avoid, whenever possible, the use of duplicitous measures long before any controversy broke out.
The reasons for this may have made perfect sense to insiders working with Abdel-Hafiz but would be widely misunderstood when the story of his reluctance to wear a wire broke after 9-11. He and his bosses understood that Arab culture would not brook well any perception of betrayal of the religious trust bond upon which he had been calling to keep the information flowing.
The big fear was that Muslims would simply stop talking to him if it were ever found out, say through a public court proceeding later, that Abdel Hafiz might be secretly monitoring supposedly private conversations. And so, if it seemed likely that certain secret surveillance methods might become public at some point, Abdel-Hafiz would avoid it. If there was virtually no chance of such methods becoming known, Abdel-Hafiz would jump in with both feet.
This was a critical nuance that would soon nearly destroy Abdel-Hafiz.
In May 1999, Abdel-Hafiz flew to FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., to complete some training and received a call from an old friend, Abbas Ibrahim. They’d known each other since they were students and roommates in New York during Abdel-Hafiz’s first visit to the United States in 1980. Ibrahim lived in Washington and worked as an accountant for BMI, an Islamic banking firm. The two got together whenever Abdel-Hafiz was in town. But this call was for business.
“Gamal, I think I’m in big trouble,” Ibrahim said. “We need to talk in private. Instead of a restaurant, do you mind coming out to the house?” Over a home-cooked meal, Ibrahim said the FBI had just subpoenaed his boss, Soliman Biheiri. It wanted Biheiri to appear before a grand jury in Chicago. Ibrahim figured he was next, and he told Abdel-Hafiz what he knew. He handed over a piece of paper. On it were instructions from a company accountant to wire large sums of money to an individual connected to an Islamic charity suspected of funding Al Qaida’s bombings the year before of two U.S. embassies in Africa.
Abdel-Hafiz recognized the investigation as a piece of an international case called “Vulgar Betrayal.” The Chicago office was handling it. Chicago believed a wealthy Saudi businessman named Yassin Qadi had been secretly controlling U.S. companies, including BMI, and laundering money for Osama bin Ladin’s terrorism operations and Hamas.
When Abdel-Hafiz returned to Dallas, he paged Chicago Special Agent Wright. Wright and his partner, Special Agent Vincent, had been working the Qadi investigation for a long time and were thrilled when Abdel-Hafiz phoned. Even better, Biheiri himself had finally gotten a message through to Abdel-Hafiz indicating he would meet. Plans were made between Chicago and Dallas to exploit it.
In a conference call between Chicago and Dallas, attended by six agents and supervisors, and years later recalled by many of those present, Abdel-Hafiz was asked to meet Biheiri wearing a hidden body recorder. Thinking of both the death threats to his family in Egypt and his Dallas assignment, Abdel-Hafiz expressed reluctance and suggested openly recording the meeting or just filing a standard report. Chicago insisted on the secret recording. The stunned agents on the other end of the line, who knew nothing of the nature of the Dallas work or the death threats, didn’t understand. Flustered, Abdel-Hafiz tried to explain. But all they seemed to hear during the back- and-forth was Abdel-Hafiz saying, “A Muslim does not record another Muslim.”
Abdel-Hafiz has a very different recollection of the conversation, which seems far more plausible but which got virtually no air time. He’d been trying to explain to Chicago how his Muslim constituency might view any news that he’d secretly recorded someone. It was that he believed some Muslims in his area of operations would view his action as a religious betrayal – and possibly attack his family – “because they would see it as a Muslim does not record another Muslim.”
The call ended when Abdel-Hafiz and Chicago agreed to put any decision to wear a wire where the issue belonged anyway: with that wearer’s senior managers. Danny Defenbaugh, the Dallas Special Agent in Charge, immediately understood Abdel-Hafiz’s reservations, noting that his agent gotten a second death threat and that there was a clear risk to the Dallas mission. He argued forcefully to Chicago that Abdel-Hafiz must not be required to wear the wire and risk the Dallas assignment when other standard methods would work just as well.
The acting head of the Chicago office, Bill Eubanks, agreed there wasn’t a rich enough investigative payoff compared to the risk that later disclosure might wreck Abdel-Hafiz’s productive Dallas work, Defenbaugh testified. In his deposition last year, Defenbaugh went one further.
“If it became known, that lack of trust wouldn’t just go to Gamal; it would go to the FBI itself also.” He explained that he had developed important personal ties with mosque leaders throughout Texas. “I’ve probably been to all but one of the mosques within the (Dallas area) here, and many times those conversations were between an imam and just myself, so you can imagine the devastation that would occur would this come out.”
The Chicago agents, Wright and Vincent assumed a cover up was in play to protect a minority agent who couldn’t be trusted. Through 1999 and into 2000, they pressed formal complaints against Abdel-Hafiz, accusing him of dereliction of duty and possible disloyalty. They demanded an internal
investigation. The complaints ultimately went nowhere, perhaps because elsewhere in the bureau, decision-makers knew that Abdel-Hafiz had indeed secretly recorded Muslims – and had happily participated in other clandestine activities with an enthusiastic competency that proved exactly where his fealty lay.
Vincent, who is now retired, spread the word among other agents that a dangerous mole was loose in the bureau, and he moved to cut off Abdel-Hafiz from his investigative files. One Dallas agent, Jay Melton, testified in a deposition that Vincent had called shortly after the dispute and offered that
“as an Arab, SA Abdel-Hafiz’s first loyalty was to other Arabs” and “essentially” accused him “of being a traitor to his country, the United States of America and the FBI. I could not believe what I was hearing.”
One of the most disparaging remarks reported to have come out of Chicago about Abdel-Hafiz was that he was a “camel jockey,” Defenbaugh testified. He demanded that his subordinate file a religious discrimination complaint, and Abdel-Hafiz did, although it would not succeed. In the complaint, though, Abdel-Hafiz describes a blizzard of personal pain that compelled him to seek out an FBI counselor, who advised him to seek out an imam.
Abdel-Hafiz, though, demurred, believing even that might wreck his Dallas work. “The majority of the Muslim imams in the area are involved in one way or another with many of our targets,” he wrote. “And the few who we know…are the ones we depend on to improve the FBI’s image within the community. I could not destroy the FBI’s image with them.”
The controversy went into hibernation until shortly after 9-11.
Abdel-Hafiz’s fortunes continued to improve. In December 2000, he was promoted to deputy legal attaché in Ryadh. Almost immediately, Freeh handpicked him for an assignment in the investigation of the USS Cole bombing, which had occurred a couple of months earlier. Yemen intelligence had a man in custody, Jamal al-Badawi. Over the course of five days, Abdel-Hafiz and another agent extracted a confession and the names of seven key conspirators, which quickly unraveled the whole plot. Back in Riyadh on September 11, 2001, Abdel-Hafiz found himself at the epicenter of the new War on Terror. Nineteen of the 20 of the hijackers were Saudi. In early 2002, an urgent call came for him. A 21-year-old U.S. citizen from Lackawanna, New York, by the name of Mukhtar al-Bakri, had been captured by Bahraini authorities. Abdel-Hafiz was ordered to repeat his performance in the USS Cole case.
The Buffalo, New York, field office had received an uncorroborated tip that six unnamed Americans in the area had formed a terror cell after receiving training at a bin Ladin camp in Afghanistan. The bureau was desperate for a break, according to Pete Ahearn, the former head of the Buffalo office. “We didn’t have anything at the time. We needed someone to cooperate.” Playing the kindly rescuer, Abdel-Hafiz secured from the prisoner a full signed confession, which included the names of five more plotters and rolled up the case now known as the Lackawanna Six. Before long, President Bush was boasting of the case during his State of the Union address. The FBI desperately needed the win because the bureau was under serious attack.
Agents in Arizona, Minnesota, and elsewhere were coming forward with stories of bureaucratic ineptitude that had allowed the attacks. When special agents Wright and Vincent came forward with their story, Abdel Hafiz’s career took a fast tumble.
ABC News’ Primetime aired an interview with Wright and Vincent in November 2002. The piece implied “Vulgar Betrayal” might have foiled 9-11 were it not for the disloyal Dallas agent serving in Saudi Arabia who had once defiantly uttered, “A Muslim does not record another Muslim” when he was ordered to wear a hidden body recorder to interview a Muslim subject.
“It was right out of his mouth. Five of us–no–six of us heard it!” Wright told Primetime. “I was floored! I went back upstairs and I called FBI headquarters to tell them what happened. And the supervisor said, ‘Well you have to understand where he’s coming from, Bob.’ I said, ‘No, no, no. I understand where I’m coming from. We both took the same damned oath to defend this country against enemies both foreign and domestic, and he just said ‘No’? No. Hell no.”
During a deposition last year, ABC Correspondent Brian Ross seemed to experience a memory lapse when presented with the interview notes and internal ABC memos of his producers that clearly show that FBI officials told the network point blank in conference calls that Abdel-Hafiz’s bosses decided he shouldn’t wear a wire, and their reasons for it. Abdel-Hafiz’s lawyer, Jeffrey Kaitcher asked the questions.
Kaitcher:. Did – was it specifically noted, as this memo seems to indicate that the decision not to record the conversation was made by executive management at Dallas? Do you recall them telling you that?
Ross: I don’t. You know, this was a conversation that – the ground rules were that it was on background. And whatever we would use formally would come to us in a statement. So it was the statement that would essentially be the FBI’s crystallization of their position.
Kaitcher: Well, the statement is exhibit 42.
Ross: That’s right.
Kaitcher: Which also says that ‘Ultimately the decision was made by management of the Dallas office’ Right?
Ross: It says that.
The depositions also show that Ross and the ABC News producers who did the reporting lacked even the most basic understanding of FBI protocol and practice, key to being able to judge the veracity of allegations coming from Wright and Vincent. For instance, when he was asked who had the authority to order Abdel-Hafiz to wear a wire, Ross incorrectly answered: “The U.S. Attorney…along with the entire team of agents and other federal prosecutors.” Ross’s incorrect assumption was significant because it led him to believe – and therefore gave the whistleblowers a platform to allege without challenge – that Abdel-Hafiz had refused a direct order from his supervisors to wear a wire.
Fox commentator Bill O’Reilly typified the treatment. He dedicated three segments of The O’Reilly Factor to Abdel-Hafiz in early 2003. At one point, he had Vincent and his lawyer on as guests. O’Reilly let them speak without challenge, framing the segment in a way that suggested he’d made up his mind; the FBI harbored a mole.
“Listen,” O’Reilly said. “We know the truth. The truth is I believe your two agents here. The guy wouldn’t tape other Muslims. That’s the truth, and he wasn’t disciplined. But he should have been disciplined, and he wasn’t. And now Mueller is trying to keep us from finding out what the big picture is, but we’re going to find it. Believe me, we will find it.”
In another segment, disingenuously it turned out, O’Reilly boiled down the controversy to a simple question, partly because neither Abdel-Hafiz nor an FBI spokesperson would appear on his show. “Did Agent Hafiz refuse to secretly tape other Muslims involved in terrorism investigations? Yes or no? If the government will not answer that simple question, we are all in big trouble.”
But O’Reilly had the government’s answer all along – in the pre-show summary packets prepared by producers who interviewed FBI officials. O’Reilly acknowledged in a deposition that these summary packets were given to him prior to the shows. Notes taken by O’Reilly Factor producers show that FBI officials provided ample formal explanations: that Abdel Hafiz’s bosses made the decision, in line with longstanding FBI rules, for entirely logical reasons of safety and to protect Abdel Hafiz’s ongoing Dallas mission.
One of O’Reilly’s producers, Kristen Lazure even made a notation about her on-record interviews with three different FBI officials.
“They’re being very helpful,” she wrote at the top of one of her documents. “What does that mean?” Abdel-Hafiz’s attorney asked Lazure during a deposition. “It means they were cooperating.”
When questioned about why he continually told viewers the FBI was not cooperating, O’Reilly offered a curious explanation. The FBI’s position either had to be provided live on-air or “in writing on FBI stationary, otherwise “it’s he-said, she-said.”
Just when the hubbub was peaking, Abdel-Hafiz’s ex-wife came forward and accused him of filing a false insurance claim a decade earlier on a home burglary. The claim had led to a lawsuit filed by Abdel-Hafiz. The FBI, no doubt feeling the heat from all the treason talk, suspended Abdel-Hafiz in February 2003 on grounds that he hadn’t informed the bureau of the lawsuit on his agent application. He was recalled from Saudi Arabia back to Dallas and fired a few months later.
After Abdel-Hafiz’s firing, O’Reilly called him at home, asking him again to come on the show. The famous television commentator seemed to acknowledge how badly things had gone for the embattled agent and readily conceded his own role. Abdel-Hafiz turned the recorder on.
“This is unfair,” O’Reilly began his pitch. “You have been tainted, somebody who has devoted a good part of his life to helping this country. I don’t want you to have this kind of burden to walk around in public with. I want you to have your reputation saved. It was extended to me that we weren’t fair with you the first time around…I was limited in what I can say because there was no one around to put forth your point of view at that point.”
Abdel-Hafiz replied: “I am really hurt because I admired you for years before you even went on Fox. And I was shocked because of what you did to me. You destroyed me and my family.”
Rather than appear on O’Reilly’s show, Abdel-Hafiz decided to sue him. In January, 2004, Abdel-Hafiz filed a defamation lawsuit against ABC News, Prime Time, Brian Ross, as well as Vincent, Wright and others. He was preparing a separate lawsuit against O’Reilly and Fox when a surprise arrived in the mail: a single-page letter from the FBI. He was reinstated to the FBI.
Pete Ahearn, the FBI executive in Buffalo who had supervised Abdel- Hafiz’s work on the Lackawanna Six case, served on appeals panel that voted 3-0 to reinstate him. He says the FBI’s internal investigation had been hastily carried out, couldn’t corroborate Bertie’s insurance fraud claim, and failed to cover even one of the exonerating leads Abdel-Hafiz has provided investigators.
“It was like, Jesus Christ. I said, ‘look this isn’t enough to fire someone,” Ahearn says. “This doesn’t meet the standard for dismissal. There were things in there that just didn’t make any sense.”
But life was not the same. The FBI stuck Abdel-Hafiz in the mortgage fraud section as the lawsuits gained traction.
None of the lawsuit targets were prepared to hear a striking revelation that emerged with it was his turn to be deposed last February.
Charles Babcock, the lawyer defending the media companies, was questioning Abdel-Hafiz about one of the two instances for which he had expressed a preference not to wear a wire. That particular incident had occurred back in 1998, during the Tampa field office’s investigation of university professor Sami Al-Arian, who was suspected of providing financial and logistical support to Hamas.
Almost every news report parroted the allegation that Abdel-Hafiz had refused direct orders to covertly record Al-Arian after the professor contacted the agent supposedly for advice about part of the investigation. FBI secrecy rules had forbidden the bureau from commenting during the media storm.
But when Babcock asked whether Abdel-Hafiz had ever attempted to secretly record Al-Arian, he offered a shocking answer.
“Yes Sir,” Abdel-Hafiz replied.
There it was, contrary to all that had been reported.
The FBI’s lawyer quickly moved to stop Abdel-Hafiz from elaborating, on grounds the topic remained classified. But the truth was out. Tellingly, Babcock went further. He offered to let Abdel-Hafiz withdraw his answer completely.
“I think, John, the witness was a little quick on the trigger. It would be acceptable to me if he wishes to withdraw his answer …” Babcock offered, helpfully.
When no one immediately took him up on the offer, Babcock repeated it. “What I’m offering,” he reiterated, hopefully. “is to allow him to withdraw the answer if you want him to, or strike that, if he wants to. It’s up to you guys.” Babcock seemed relieved when Abdel-Hafiz offered that it was alright with him and the Al Arian matter was concluded.
It turns out, though, that Abdel-Hafiz covertly recorded other Muslims on at least two more occasions, and he facilitated the secret surveillance of Muslims on at least one other occasion. Abdel-Hafiz wore a wire in 1999 to a Denny’s restaurant near Dallas to talk to a Syrian associate of African embassy bomber Wadih El Hage, according to two knowledgeable government sources. The target’s name was Ghassan Dahduli, and the purpose of the meeting was for Abdel-Hafiz to recruit Dahduli as an informant. It was a meeting that stood virtually no chance of ever becoming public, and so Abdel-Hafiz happily wore the wire, which allowed two tailing agents to listen in on the conversation.
El Hage was the focus of attention of another instance when Abdel-Hafiz worked covertly against fellow Muslims. It was 1998, shortly after the Africa embassy bombings. The New York-based bin Ladin task force, “I-49,” had zeroed in on an Arlington, Texas mosque El Hage was attending. Jack Cloonan, a former agent of I-49, says, “We never required [Gamal] to wear a wire. We did ask him to get some information for us about locations of certain things in the mosque. That information was critical to get electronic coverage of certain areas of the mosque. We never had any problems [with Gamal]. I think all this other stuff had no basis.”
Lastly, in 2002, during Abdel-Hafiz’s Lackawanna Six investigation, the pivotal interview, the one that led to a full confession of all the cell members, was secretly videotaped and audio-taped by Abdel-Hafiz. This happened just two months before ABC aired its story.
Today, Abdel-Hafiz is once more working counter-terrorism. He oversees a group of intelligence analysts, examining streams of classified information. He decides what should be pursued as criminal cases and who should be investigated. It’s a position that requires the trust and confidence of his supervisors.
But other field offices don’t call as much as they once did. Nor is Abdel-Hafiz summoned by top brass when help is needed abroad.
He keeps a low profile in the Arab community. Some Muslims were happy he got his comeuppance for working against them. Others were wary of associating with Abdel-Hafiz, a possible traitor, lest that association bring undue FBI attention to them. Lately, Abdel-Hafiz has been seen, making connections here and there for the FBI. But nothing like before.
His lawsuit continues to churn through the Tarrant County, Texas courts. Defamation and libel suits are always a long shot.
The FBI is watching the case nervously. There are some who know Abdel-Hafiz who believe nothing–not even winning the suit–will allow him to regain what he feels he lost. And perhaps much more time will have to pass before he will again be fully accepted by either the FBI or the Islamic community.
“I hope, for himself, he finds peace,” says one agent who asked not to be
identified. “But really, he’s a man without a country.”