A Fairfax County Police sergeant who admits tipping off a terrorism suspect that he was under FBI surveillance also helped kill what had been a successful intelligence and terrorism-related training program within his police department.
Sgt. Weiss Rasool was sentenced to two years probation on April 22 after pleading guilty to illegally accessing a police database to run license tag numbers for a friend who thought he was being followed. Those tags traced back to FBI agents who had Rasool's acquaintance under surveillance as part of a terrorism investigation.
The Washington Post reported that Rasool cried during his sentencing and apologized for what he called "errors of judgment. But I never intended to put anybody's life at risk." The Post further reported:
"The target was arrested in November 2005, then convicted and deported, according to court filings in Rasool's case. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeanine Linehan said that the target and his family were already dressed and destroying evidence at 6 a.m. when agents arrived to make the arrest, indicating that they had been tipped off."
Now the president of an Arlington, Va.-based counterterrorism research center is asking Rasool's bosses to reconsider their 2006 decision to cease using training programs offered by the center. Complaints by Rasool and an officer from another local agency that the training was anti-Islam prompted Fairfax County police to break with the Higgins Center for Counter Terrorism Research.
In a letter to Police Chief David Rohrer written two days after Rasool's sentencing, Higgins Center President Peter Leitner said Rasool's complaints were unfounded and harmed his company's reputation:
"We were deeply disturbed and offended that the leadership of your Department sided with Rasool and essentially blackballed our non-Profit (sic) organization from teaching within your Academy. Several scheduled classes were cancelled and we were never invited back…
We were dismissed without recourse, suffered financial and professional reputation losses, and the resulting pressures caused serious damage to our ability to function properly. All on the basis of spurious charges made by someone who later proved to be unreliable -- at best."
Leitner said he has received no response to his letter.
"This is precisely why Fairfax PD needs our training," Leitner told the Investigative Project on Terrorism in an e-mail. "They need to learn about 5th column activities and penetrating agents. It also shows how ignorance and/or political correctness at the local level can jeopardize national security interests and assets."
Though he pled guilty, prosecutors still complained that Rasool was not playing straight with them. They originally argued that Rasool deserved a sentenced at the low end of the federal guidelines. That changed after a defense sentencing motion cast his actions as a simple administrative oversight, and that had he submitted a relevant form, "it is possible the case would not be before the Court today." Prosecutors then argued Rasool was not taking responsibility for his actions, saying he even claimed not to remember tapping in to the federal database and that he initially denied knowing the suspect or calling him. He confessed only after hearing a recording of the call.
"[A]s I told you, I can only tell you if it comes back to a person or not a person and all three vehicles do not come back to an individual person, so I just wanted to give you that much, uhh ok. Hope things work out for you," Rasool said in a voice mail message to his friend that was intercepted by federal investigators.
Rasool's attorney argued he was responding normally to a citizen's concern that he was being followed. "Rather," prosecutors responded, "the evidence is that the defendant was advising the target that he was being following by government vehicles."
In their sentencing memo to the court, prosecutors made clear the severity of Rasool's breach:
"The defendant, through his experience with the police, had a basis to believe that the leasing company was used for federal law enforcement vehicles, but despite that, relayed the information to the individual. The defendant also checked his name and other names multiple times in NCIC without a legitimate law enforcement purpose to do so and to see if he or others he was acquainted with were listed on the Terrorist Watch List.
The defendant's actions damaged the integrity of the NCIC system and jeopardized at least one federal investigation. The defendant's actions could have placed federal agents in danger. The FBI has had to undo the harm caused by the defendant."
The Higgins Center had offered courses for years without any complaint, yet in June of 2006, that all changed. In a letter dated June 26, 2006 to Academy Director Major Tyrone Morrow, Higgins Vice President Brian Fairchild indicated six officers in total lodged complaints against his programs. But the complaints did not reflect the program's actual content, Fairchild said, noting that statements used to illustrate Islamist ideology come from the Islamists themselves. In addition, instructors repeatedly make clear that the Islamists expressing radical ideology do not reflect the general Muslim world:
"It appears that these officers misunderstood and/or are confused by the content of our courses which is solely to educate officers about Islamist terrorists and the international revolutionary Islamist movement that creates and supports them. We are surprised by the assertions in these complaints, because, in order to ensure that such misunderstandings do not occur, we clearly define our terms in lecture supported by PowerPoint slides.
In our seminars, we never criticize traditional Islam or Muslims. Quite to the contrary, we definitively and repeatedly state that the overwhelming majority of the 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide are fine people that have nothing to do with extremism or terrorism." (emphasis in original)
In one complaint, Fairchild noted, the officer praised Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi, who founded the Pakistani Islamic group Jamaat e-Islami in 1941. Maududi, Fairchild wrote, considered non-Islamic governments to be evil and sanctioned their violent overthrow.
"One of Maududi's direct quotes concisely describes his views:
- ‘Islam wishes to destroy all States and Governments anywhere on the face of the earth which are opposed to the ideology and programme of Islam regardless of the country or the Nation which rules it. The purpose of Islam is to set up a State on the basis of its own ideology and programme, regardless of which Nation assumes the role of the standard bearer of Islam or the rule of which nation is undermined in the process of the establishment of an ideological Islamic State.'" (emphasis in original)
Rasool was under federal investigation at the time. In addition to running the license tag numbers, he admitted improperly accessing the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database 15 times in 2005-06, checking for his own name and the names of acquaintances. "The defendant did this in an attempt to determine if he or others were registered with the Violent Crime and Terrorist Offender File, which is a category of records maintained within the NCIC system," the plea agreement states.
In an interview, Leitner expressed frustration with the way Fairfax police officials treated him and his company. He called the complaints "nebulous," and said he was never given a full opportunity to rebut them. "It was very star chamber like."
Another officer who joined Rasool in complaining about the Higgins program works for an area sheriff's department, Leitner said. That officer claimed to be a representative from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Leitner said.
In November 2006, Fairfax County Police Chief David Rohrer attended CAIR's 12th Annual Banquet at the Marriott hotel in Crystal City. He credited CAIR with "helping police departments to better understand the Muslim community," adding:
"As we go forward, let us choose to make a difference and embrace a vision of peace and unity and hope. And let us choose for us and our children hope over fear, caring over indifference, tolerance over intolerance, acceptance over prejudice, and understanding over ignorance."
Among those writing to the sentencing judge in support of Rasool was CAIR governmental affairs director Corey Saylor. "I have always found Sgt. Rasool eager to promote a substantive relationship between the Fairfax County Police Department and the local Muslim community. His efforts played a significant role in improving trust in a time when mutual misunderstanding could easily severe (sic) all positive ties between these two groups."
Another letter of support came from Tyrone Morrow, the training academy major to whom Fairchild wrote his letter of appeal in 2006. Morrow, now retired, told the court he used to supervise Rasool and found him "to be of sound character and reputation."
Despite his plea to a misdemeanor, Rasool remains a Fairfax County police sergeant although he is under an internal affairs investigation.