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June 16, 2016
Notes from the Pentagon

FBI under fire over Orlando
The FBI is facing new scrutiny after it failed to prevent the weekend terrorist attack in Orlando despite conducting a fairly extensive investigation into the shooter.

FBI Director James B. Comey this week defended the bureau’s handling of security guard Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in an Islamic State-inspired shooting spree, telling reporters that the agency would conduct a review of its handling of the Mateen case.

A Republican aide said the House Judiciary Committee is reviewing the FBI’s handling the Mateen investigation, and the panel’s chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican, has been briefed on the matter. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, is also conducting a review and wrote to the Department of Homeland Security and State Department this week requesting information on the shooter.

According to the FBI chief, Mateen became the target of an FBI terrorism investigation for 10 months after a co-worker reported in May 2013 that Mateen, who was working as a security guard at a local courthouse at the time, had made statements “about terrorism.” Mateen, the son of Afghan immigrants, claimed he was a member of al Qaeda and Iran-backed Hezbollah. Mateen also stated that he hoped law enforcement officers would raid his apartment and assault his wife and child so he could “martyr himself” in response, Mr. Comey said.

The probe was dropped after Mateen admitted making the statements, but claimed he made the remarks in anger after discrimination by co-workers for being a Muslim.

Two months after dropping the investigation that used confidential informants and electronic surveillance, the FBI in July 2014 again probed terrorist links between Mateen and an American suicide bomber who attacked in Syria. Mateen and the Nusra Front bomber went to the same Florida mosque. Mr. Comey said the FBI found “no ties of any consequence” between the two.

Further, an informant told the FBI during the 2014 probe that Mateen had mentioned watching videos by Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born terrorist and al Qaeda recruiter who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2011.

The shooting was the worst terrorist attack since Sept. 11, 2001, and struck at the heart of the FBI’s stated No. 1 priority: protecting the United States from terrorist attacks.

The FBI director promised to review the handling of the case and to “look hard at our own work to see whether there is something we should have done differently. I don’t see anything in reviewing our work that our agents should have done differently,” he said.

However, the two investigations of Mateen should have found clues to his plot, critics say.

“The FBI has a documented track record of mishandling reports of credible derogatory information and failing to rigorously follow referrals from other law enforcement and intelligence services concerning terrorism suspects,” said Judicial Watch investigator Chris Farrell, a former counterintelligence officer.

The FBI earlier did not properly investigate a Tampa terrorism financing case and did not handle tips to Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Now they missed Mateen. “The impression the public is left with is of an agency that is overwhelmed, underresourced, inattentive or all of the above,” Mr. Farrell added.

An additional failure was the lack of any warning of an Islamic State-inspired attack, despite the group’s threat in May to conduct attacks in the United States and Europe during Ramadan, which began in early June.

Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, in a video made public May 21, called on jihadis to “get prepared, be ready to make it a month of calamity everywhere for nonbelievers, especially for the fighters and supporters of the caliphate in Europe and America.”

No government alerts or warnings were issued after the threat. A Homeland Security Department spokeswoman would not explain why there were no warnings after the May threat but said an agency alert in December was still in effect.

An American strategic analyst joined a group of Philippines activists who carried out a bold protest at a disputed island in the South China Sea, facing off against Chinese coast guard harassment.

Anders Corr, a principal of Corr Analytics, joined a group of 15 Philippine activists who made their way to Scarborough Reef aboard a 90-foot wooden fishing boat. The reef is part of the Spratly Islands and is claimed by China, which has been controlling the reef, located some 123 miles west of Subic Bay. Philippines and Taiwan also claim the reef.

Mr. Corr told Inside the Ring that the group was confronted by several Chinese coast guard vessels, including small speedboats and later two larger coast guard cutters during the foray. One Chinese yelled in English to the group that “the South China Sea is Chinese lake.”

No weapons were visible, and no Chinese fishermen or vessels were spotted around the reef.

Beijing has held the reef since 2012, after the Philippine navy retreated in the face of Chinese naval intimidation.

The Pentagon is concerned that China will begin building up the reef as it has done with some 3,200 acres of islands in the South China Sea over the past several years. In recent months, China has been adding missiles, fighter jets and other weapons on some of the islands to bolster its sovereignty claims.

Defense officials said China’s plans to build up the strategic reef were disclosed in construction bids for dredging the large reef, which has a central lagoon surrounded by land. Chinese plans calls for a large runway capable of handling large military aircraft and jets, along with a deep-water port for warships.

Scarborough is a major worry for the U.S. Navy because of its closeness to Subic Bay, where the Navy will soon begin deploying ships in order to bolster Philippine defenses. Manila and Washington have a mutual defense treaty, but the United States has not invoked the treaty in the clash over Scarborough.

Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations, in March said he was concerned that China has made the reef the next sea area to be built up. “I think we see some surface ship activity and those sorts of things, survey type of activity, going on. That’s a next possible area of reclamation,” Adm. Richardson told Reuters.

Mr. Corr said the Philippine activist group Kalayaan Atin Ito (It is Ours) organized the boat protest that sailed June 12.

“When we arrived just outside the ring of the shoal, the Chinese coast guard blocked us with two cutters, a medium-sized boat and two speedboats,” he said. “We fished, danced and ate near the shoal and then decided to take a swim. One set of two swimmers diverted the two speedboats while the other set of three swimmers made it to the shoal and raised a small Philippine flag.”

Chinese harassment included close passes by the speedboats around the swimmers, threatening them with propellers of their motors.

“The action galvanized the Philippine public and media, and could have strengthened the Philippines’ international standing,” Mr. Corr said.

The protest could have gone differently. China in the past has used its maritime enforcement boats to ram foreign vessels that challenged China’s South China Sea maritime claims.

White House National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice has maintained an extremely low public profile, rarely appearing at press conferences or on Sunday talks shows.

This week, however, Ms. Rice took to social media to provide the American public with Twitter-length comments on the National Security Council meeting Tuesday.

“NSC meeting reviewed significant gains against ISIL as we put it on the path [to] destruction,” she stated. “Also focused on countering its hideous ideology.”

Several White House spokesmen refused to elaborate on how the NSC meeting of senior advisers and President Obama focused on the issue of countering Islamic State ideology, an area that critics say is the weakest area of the U.S. strategy, mainly over the president’s refusal to use the term “radical Islam” in countering the ideology.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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