February 4, 2016, Reuters
The U.S. Justice Department is considering legal changes to combat what it sees as a rising threat from domestic anti-government extremists, senior officials told Reuters, even as it steps up efforts to stop Islamic State-inspired attacks at home.
Extremist groups motivated by a range of U.S.-born philosophies present a “clear and present danger,” John Carlin, the Justice Department’s chief of national security, told Reuters in an interview. “Based on recent reports and the cases we are seeing, it seems like we’re in a heightened environment.”
Over the past year, the Justice Department has brought charges against domestic extremist suspects accused of attempting to bomb U.S. military bases, kill police officers and fire bomb a school and other buildings in a predominantly Muslim town in New York state.
But federal prosecutors tackling domestic extremists still lack an important legal tool they have used extensively in dozens of prosecutions against Islamic State-inspired suspects: a law that prohibits supporting designated terrorist groups.
Carlin and other Justice Department officials declined to say if they would ask Congress for a comparable domestic extremist statute, or comment on what other changes they might pursue to toughen the fight against anti-government extremists.
The U.S. State Department designates international terrorist organizations to which it is illegal to provide “material support.” No domestic groups have that designation, helping to create a disparity in charges faced by international extremist suspects compared to domestic ones.
A Reuters analysis of more than 100 federal cases found that domestic terrorism suspects collectively have faced less severe charges than those accused of acting on behalf of Islamic State since prosecutors began targeting that group in early 2014.
Defense Department officials celebrated last year after their auditor certified that the Marine Corps had successfully accounted for all the money it received and spent in 2012. They said it was a key milestone in the Pentagon’s long, troubled quest to earn that certification for all its billions of dollars in annual spending.
Then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the comptroller at the time, Robert Hale, who oversaw the Corps’s work, marked the occasion at a February 2014 event in the building’s Hall of Heroes, where they presented a framed copy of the certification to the Corps’s assistant commandant. Hagel boasted that “we don’t spend a lot of time using big megaphones to tout our great accomplishments.… We get the job done. This is another example of, we’re getting the job done.”
The self-congratulations turned to embarrassment this March, however, when the Pentagon’s auditor suddenly reversed itself and withdrew its endorsement, saying newly discovered facts called into question “the completeness of the information on which we based our opinion,” according to a memorandum sent by a senior auditor to the Pentagon’s comptroller and other top defense officials.
No one said so at the time, but the Corps had not properly accounted for roughly $800 million worth of transactions on its books, insiders say. That amount represents the sum of misstated and improperly documented transactions by the Corps, according to a report by the independent Government Accountability Office (GAO) released on Aug. 4.
Gaziantep, Turkey – Lieutenant Farhan al-Jassem is not a reluctant soldier, but sadness lurked behind his smile and deep brown eyes when he talked about the last two and half years he spent trying to fight what he considers the good fight in Syria.
On a sultry July night in a tea garden in southeastern Turkey, Jassem, 29, leaned back in his plastic chair and gulped down several bottles of water as he told the story of how he came to lead a key Syrian brigade receiving training and equipment from a U.S.-organized military coalition to take on the Islamic State. As he spoke, 54 members of the larger division his brigade belonged to were finishing up their training with U.S. Special Operations soldiers at a base located roughly 200 miles to the northwest.
Jassem got his first taste of the country’s roiling civil war in early 2012, when he was conscripted into Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad’s army, but he hated it and bought his way out, paying $400 for permission to visit his home town of Manbij, 40 miles northeast of Aleppo. There, he quickly joined the anti-regime Free Syrian Army, before moving to a smaller Turkmen brigade and then to the so-called 30th Division, created by the United States and its allies as the vanguard of Washington’s effort to roll back the Islamic State’s territorial gains.
When he spoke to the Center for Public Integrity in July, Jassem had passed an initial round of vetting to join the training and said he expected to participate in the next class—so long as the U.S. coalition kept its promises to the first set of graduates, especially a promise that the coalition would “protect us against our enemies after the program ends,” he said.
But Jassem’s fate suddenly took an uncertain turn on July 28, when he was captured by a rival anti-ISIS militia, known as the Nusra Front, which is affiliated with Al Qaeda and therefore an enemy of any Syrian close to Americans.
Nils Kauffman, who served as an education officer for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Afghanistan, said he noticed irregularities at a vocational training institute the agency was funding during his visits to its campus in downtown Kabul in 2012 and 2013. He recalls being surprised not to see any students in the institute’s laboratories, where volt meters and scientific equipment remained in their original packaging.
Though Kauffman spied students elsewhere, he said he could never get a reliable account of how many were actually enrolled at the school. He also could not verify that the institute had addressed what a 2011 external audit called a host of “deviations” from sound practices, including a lack of accounting software, a cash-based payment system, and $118,000 in spending by the school over a five month period on weapons, international travel, and salary supplements.
Kauffman didn’t have the authority to demand a new, broader audit of the institute, but he reported his concerns to his superiors at USAID. They never acted, he said, and he recalls an official in the agency’s Office of Afghanistan-Pakistan Affairs expressing worry that canceling the institute’s funding would create what the official called “bad press.”
U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have stolen tens of millions through bribery, theft, and rigged contracts.
U.S. Army Specialist Stephanie Charboneau sat at the center of a complex trucking network in Forward Operating Base Fenty near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border that distributed daily tens of thousands of gallons of what troops called “liquid gold”: the refined petroleum that fueled the international coalition’s vehicles, planes, and generators.
A prominent sign in the base read: “The Army Won’t Go If The Fuel Don’t Flow.” But Charboneau, 31, a mother of two from Washington state, felt alienated after a supervisor’s harsh rebuke. Her work was a dreary routine of recording fuel deliveries in a computer and escorting trucks past a gate. But it was soon to take a dark turn into high-value crime.
She began an affair with a civilian, Jonathan Hightower, who worked for a Pentagon contractor that distributed fuel from Fenty, and one day in March 2010 he told her about “this thing going on” at other U.S. military bases around Afghanistan, she recalled in a recent telephone interview.
Troops were selling the U.S. military’s fuel to Afghan locals on the side, and pocketing the proceeds. When Hightower suggested they start doing the same, Charboneau said, she agreed.
In so doing, Charboneau contributed to thefts by U.S. military personnel of at least $15 million worth of fuel since the start of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. And eventually she became one of at least 115 enlisted personnel and military officers convicted since 2005 of committing theft, bribery, and contract-rigging crimes valued at $52 million during their deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to a comprehensive tally of court records by the Center for Public Integrity.
The 2016 House and Senate budget proposals for war spending that moved toward a congressional floor vote this week were loaded up with tens of billions of dollars more than the Defense Department requested, representing the largest increase lawmakers have attempted to add to the executive branch’s requests for such funds.
These moves — which come as the Obama administration tries to wind down the U.S. war in Afghanistan and to steer clear of a large new incursion in Iraq — were pushed through by Republican lawmakers that since 2003 have received a total $8 million in contributions from the political action committees and employees of top defense contractors, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity.
The proposals emerged from a convoluted congressional debate that pitted pro-defense hawks against federal deficit hawks, with the former — backed by defense industry lobbying — emerging triumphant.
Senior U.S. officials say professors should have been more carefully vetted
Carlos Alberto Ospina Ovalle was deep in the Colombian mountains in the autumn of 1997, directing an Army brigade in a major offensive against a group that Washington formally designated that year as terrorists, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. He achieved some battlefield successes, and five years later, he was appointed chief of the Colombian Armed Forces.
Flash forward to earlier this month: Ospina Ovalle was in a military classroom in Washington, lecturing at the National Defense University to an elite group of U.S. and foreign military officers and civilians from a podium set before a row of Latin American flags. Colleagues at the school, which is chartered by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, say Ospina Ovalle is particularly respected there for his experience under fire and his deep knowledge of counterterrorism strategy.
In recent weeks, however, a less heroic portrayal of Ospina’s past has caught up with him, provoking controversy over his presence in the United States among lawmakers on Capitol Hill and within the Obama administration, and new expressions of concern from Washington’s community of Latin American specialists.
The controversy concerns allegations that back in 1997, Ospina’s Fourth Brigade allowed a pro-government militia to sack the village of El Aro in northern Colombia, brutally killing several people, including some children, and leaving others missing.