Investigative Report: Why Did The FBI Let A Congressional Hacking Suspect Leave The Country?
* FBI agents apprehended Hina Alvi at an airport in 2017
* She was suspected of hacking Congress and is the wife of Imran Awan
* Awan and his family members allegedly logged into servers of congressmen for whom they did not work
In March 2017, FBI agents were tailing House of Representatives IT aides suspected of hacking Congress, and apprehended one at the airport trying to make a hasty exit to Pakistan. She refused to speak with them, and a search revealed that she was carrying an apparently illegal amount of cash.
The FBI allowed Hina Alvi, wife of Imran Awan, to board the plane anyway — then filed paperwork saying agents believed she had no intention of returning to the U.S.
For nearly a year since, the case has lingered despite the House Office of Inspector General (OIG) determining that the family of Pakistanis made “unauthorized access” to Congress’s data shortly before the election.
Following revelations about the FBI’s actions in the investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s email server and Department of Justice officials’ handling of the Trump dossier, attention has turned to the agencies’ apparently lax attitude toward the congressional cyber breach case as perhaps the most jarring failure to enforce laws in cases that overlap politics.
The OIG alleged Imran Awan and his family members logged into servers of congressmen for whom they did not work, logged in using members’ personal usernames, covered their tracks, and continued to access data after they’d been fired.
Though the findings place the case squarely into the category of political cyber-crimes that have otherwise been high-profile priorities, the lead FBI agent assigned to the Awan case was a first-year agent, and not from one of the FBI’s big-guns divisions. The charges brought by prosecutors are so minor that Awan’s own lawyer speculated they could be a “placeholder” for future charges.
Server logs of government computers backed up the OIG’s findings. Yet six months after the initial charges, no additional counts have been brought, raising the question of whether the DOJ is seriously investigating the potential national security breach.
From the FBI affidavit:
On March 5, 2017, your Affiant, along with agents from the FBI and U.S. Capitol Police, approached Alvi at Dulles International Airport, in Dulles, Virginia. Alvi was about to board Qatar Airlines, Flight 708, to Doha, Qatar, on her way to Lahore, Pakistan. Alvi was with her three children, who your Affiant later learned were abruptly taken out of school without notifying the Fairfax County Public School System.
Alvi had numerous pieces of luggage with her, including cardboard boxes. A secondary search of those items revealed that the boxes contained household goods, clothing, and food items. US Customs and Border Protection conducted a search of Alvi’s bags immediately prior to boarding the plane and located a total of $12,400 in US cash inside. Alvi was permitted to board the flight to Qatar and she and her daughters have not returned to the United States. Alvi has a return flight booked for a date in September 2017.
Based on your Affiant’s observations at Dulles Airport, and upon his experience and training, your Affiant does not believe that Alvi has any intention to return to the United States.
The FBI affidavit was filed in July 2017 after Awan also attempted to board a flight to Pakistan — this time with $9,000. Unlike Alvi, the FBI arrested Awan. Both were indicted on charges of lying to the government to cash out their congressional retirement fund and lying to a bank to secure a loan.
Prosecutors said in court papers that they believe rounding up that money and wiring it overseas was part of a plan to flee from the underlying investigation.
“Based on the suspicious timing of that transaction, Awan and Alvi likely knew they were under investigation at that time,” prosecutors later wrote. In other words, the case isn’t actually about bank fraud, as some Democrats claimed, because the alleged fraud didn’t even occur until after the investigation had begun. Yet they have not charged them with anything in the underlying investigation.
“We don’t use surveillance assets for loan fraud,” Michael Sharkey, a retired FBI agent with 24 years experience, said. “The bureau doesn’t just do physical surveillance willy-nilly. It’s a lot of manpower; they only do it when its a serious case. I was thinking they just didn’t have anything to hold her on. But when they found that $12,000 in cash, that changed.”
Anyone “transporting more than USD $10,000 or its equivalent” must declare it on a form before going through customs, according to U.S. Code Title 31 section 5361. Penalties include “not only forfeiture of the money, but a fine ranging from $250,000 to $500,000 and jail time from 5 to 10 years.”
Ron Hosko, the FBI’s former assistant director, said the agent on the case is “getting marginalized on the thing, he doesn’t have the bigger picture.” He said the facts in the case plainly call for the resources of both the FBI’s counterintelligence division and the public corruption unit. Peter Strzok, who sought to close down the investigation into Clinton’s emails before the intelligence community IG found classified materials, and who repeatedly voiced his support for Democrats, was deputy assistant director of the FBI’s counterintelligence division.
Former U.S. attorney Andrew McCarthy observed that prosecutors waited until Alvi left the country to indict her — even though the alleged fraud occurred weeks before she left.
“The office is low-keying the Awan prosecution,” McCarthy wrote. “The indictment itself is drawn very narrowly. All four charges flow from a financial-fraud conspiracy of short duration. Only Imran Awan and his wife are named as defendants. There is no reference to Awan family perfidy in connection with the House communications system.”
(The IG report named others as suspects: brothers Abid and Jamal Awan and friend Rao Abbas. None has been charged with any crimes.)
The indictment also made no mention of the airport encounters. “Did prosecutors fail to mention the flight evidence in hope of diverting attention from the government’s decision to let Alvi flee?” McCarthy asked. “Again, one would hope not; but if not, what could the explanation be?”
Alvi returned to the U.S. in October to be arraigned, leading GOP Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona to speculate Alvi had some reason to believe she would never face serious charges. When it came time for the dual citizen to turn herself in and surrender her passports, Alvi shook her head “no” to say she didn’t have a Pakistani passport. After whispered discussion with her attorney, she clarified that she had a Pakistani passport but hadn’t brought it. The court requested Alvi have her Pakistani passport mailed to authorities if she could. Prosecutors not only didn’t ask for jail, they didn’t request a GPS monitor. Awan has a GPS, but Judge Tanya Chutkan — who was also the judge in the Fusion GPS case until she recused herself — said she is inclined to have the device removed, given the nature of the current charges.
If prosecutors had any doubt the IG’s findings on Awan fit into a troubling pattern of allegations, they need go no further than to ask Alvi herself. After landing in Pakistan in March, she filed a lawsuit against her husband, alleging he was a fraudster who controlled her with violent threats. Prosecutors in the U.S. never mentioned this, and she was seated as a co-defendant directly across from her husband, whom she refused to look at.
Starkey said defendants that may be under duress should be separated. He pointed out that the DOJ missed out on an obvious opportunity to “flip” Alvi, and they may be placing her in danger. (Two other women romantically linked to Awan called Virginia police on him in 2015, and authorities discovered both women bloodied.)
The IG report called attention to suspicions that multiple members’ data was being funneled onto one server — that of the House Democratic Caucus. The entire server was physically stolen soon after, three senior government officials said.
That should have set the nation’s primary law enforcement and intelligence bodies into full gear, Sharkey said. “I cannot fathom that there’s not some major investigation going on. It’s outrageous the things that have happened in this case,” he said.
As the FBI appeared to dedicate resources not commensurate with the gravity of the findings, the case seemed to shrink even further once it got to prosecutors.
Some apparent crimes depicted in the FBI’s affidavit were missing from the indictment. The affidavit claims Alvi’s tax returns show she did not pay taxes on income from a different rental property for multiple years. It says Alvi then falsely claimed the house wasn’t being rented out and provided a supposed lease showing her mother lived there. Agents talked to the real tenants and determined there was rental income, but prosecutors didn’t charge her with tax evasion.
If the server theft was designed to make the case harder to prosecute, members of Congress who seemed to be wary of another cybersecurity scandal appear to have joined in. A Capitol Hill Republican involved with oversight on the case said Democrats were refusing to press charges and asserting the “Speech and Debate Clause” of the Constitution, which protects lawmakers’ legislative comments, to block prosecutors from evidence.
Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida threatened the Capitol Police chief with “consequences” if he didn’t return a key piece of evidence and said Imran was being “persecuted.” Wasserman Schultz’s brother is an assistant U.S. attorney at the office handling the case, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.
The legislative branch’s continued influence on the case is apparent in several ways, including the presence of Capitol Police officers at both airport encounters. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan painted the FBI as merely offering “assistance” to the Capitol Police, who report to the House and whose evidence prosecutors cannot automatically obtain.
Sharkey said when “you’ve got Congress involved, DOJ freaks out, because those cases are very sensitive.”
The FBI told numerous people it had hundreds of pages of Suspicious Activity Reports detailing the Awans’ cash transfers– reports that frequently lead to money laundering or tax evasion charges.
Public records show the family ran suspicious limited liability companies while they worked on Capitol Hill, and those entities were not listed on their House financial disclosure reports. Former Democratic Rep. Corrine Brown of Florida went to prison in January for lying on those same forms, yet prosecutors have not charged the Awans.
The OIG report also claimed the Awans submitted manipulated invoices for computer equipment to Congress, the falsification of which no one disputes, and which DOJ reportedly subpoenaed from vendors, but no one has been charged for that.
Hosko said six months in, DOJ has all the tools it needs and cannot blame the House, and inaction can only indicate a lack of desire to pursue the case.
“I would hope the Capitol Police are being forthcoming with the U.S. attorney, not just telling them a part of what’s gone on here,” Hosko said, alluding to the House’s characterization of the incident as a “theft” case. “But with these circumstances, [DOJ] can’t put their head in the sand. You can’t just say, ‘Well, someone on the Hill said it’s Speech and Debate.’ There’s certainly a way around it. This is [ Attorney General Jeff] Sessions, and there’s a new mindset in DOJ.”
(Michael Marando is the prosecutor. Since the case began, President Donald Trump appointed a new U.S. attorney, Jessie Liu.)
“I don’t see it as [members] having the opportunity to press charges — the government is the victim,” Hosko said.
If prosecutors don’t act, Hosko said, higher-level officials could consider moving the case. “It could be the Eastern District of Virginia has jurisdiction as well,” he said.
Their next court date is March 8.
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