Only fraud or something more?
On July 25, Pakistani-American IT specialist Imran Awan was arrested at Dulles Airport for bank fraud while he was allegedly fleeing to Pakistan. The reports predictably produced some press coverage before the story died. Yet the speed at which the news vanished has prompted some observers to suggest that there might actually be something more to the disappearance than the operation of the normal media-reporting cycle. A number of conservative websites, including Breitbart,have been sounding the alarm over a possible cover-up that just might even be linked to what we are now calling Russiagate.
To be sure, the tale is a strange one with plenty of unsavory links. Thirty-seven-year-old Awan, as well as his wife and two brothers Abid and Jamal, worked as IT administrators for nearly 30 congressmen, all Democrats, including former Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. They did not have security clearances and it is not even certain that they were in any way checked out before being hired. At one point, they brought into the House as a colleague one Rao Abbas, someone to whom they owed money and who might have had no qualifications at all to work IT. Abbas wound up working in the office of Rep. Patrick Murphy, who was at the time a member of the House Intelligence Committee, as well as for Rep. Theo Deutch. He was paid $250,000.
The process of granting security clearances to Congressional staff is not exactly transparent, but it is not unlike clearances for other government agencies. The office seeking the clearance for a staff member must put in a request, some kind of investigation follows, and the applicant must sign a non-disclosure agreement before the authorization is granted. Sometimes Congress pushes the process by demanding that its staff have access above and beyond the normal “need to know.” In March 2016, for example, eight Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee requested that their staffs be given access to top-secret sensitive compartmented information (SCI). It is not known if the Awans, who were working for several committee members, would have been involved, but Buzzfeed, in its initial reporting on the investigation of the Awans family, repeated the concerns of a congressman that the suspects might have “had access to the House of Representatives’ entire computer network.”
The Awans billed Congress for more than $4 million between 2004 and 2016, a sum that has been reported to be three or four times higher than the norm for government contractor IT specialists performing similar work. The considerable level of overbilling has not been explained by the congressmen involved. In spite of all that income, Imran Awan declared bankruptcy in 2010, claiming losses of $1 million on a car business that he owned in Falls Church, Va. The business was named Cars International A, abbreviated on its business cards as CIA.
As of February 2016, the Awans came under suspicion for having set up an operation to steal and resell government-owned computer equipment. It was also believed that they had somehow obtained access to House of Representatives’ computer databases as well as to other information in the internal computer system that they were not normally authorized to work on as part of their duties. The Capitol Hill Police began an investigation and quietly alerted the congressmen involved that there might be a problem. Most stopped employing the Awan family, but Wasserman-Schultz kept Imran on the payroll until the day after he was actually arrested.
Some of those defending the Awans, to include Wasserman-Schultz and the family lawyer, have insisted that he and his family were the victims of “an anti-Muslim, right-wing smear job,” though there is no actual evidence to suggest that is the case. They also claim that the bank fraud, in which he obtained a home equity loan for $165,000 from the Congressional Federal Credit Union based on a house that he owned and claimed to live in in Lorton, Va., was largely a misunderstanding; it was described by his lawyer Chris Gowen, a Clinton family confidant, as something that was “extremely minor.” It turned out that there was a tenant in the house, an ex-Marine and his Naval officer wife, who were very suspicious about a large quantity of what appeared to be government-sourced computer equipment and supplies, all material that had been left behind by the Awans. They contacted the FBI, which discovered hard drives that appeared to have been deliberately destroyed.
The FBI is certainly interested in the theft of government computers. But it is also looking into the possibility that the Awans were using their ability to access and possibly exploit sensitive information stored in the House of Representatives’ computer network, as well as through Wasserman-Schultz’s iPad, which Imran had access to and connected to the Democratic National Committee server. As Imran Awan was also a dual-national, born in Pakistan, the possibility of espionage also had to be considered. The charge that Awan was actually arrested on, bank fraud, was an easy way to hold him, as that aspect of his activities was well documented. It allows the other more serious investigations to continue, so the argument that Imran Awan is only being held over a minor matter is not necessarily correct.
Awans wired the credit union money to Pakistan, as part of a $283,000 transfer that was made in January. His wife Hina Alvi also left the U.S. two months later. She was searched by Customs officers and it was determined that she was carrying $12,000 in cash. She also had with her their three children, and numerous boxes containing household goods and clothing. It was clear that she did not intend to come back, but there has been no explanation why she was even allowed to leave, since carrying more than $10,000 out of the country without reporting it is a felony.
As Imran Awan reportedly had access to Wasserman-Schultz’s iPad, he presumably also had access to the incriminating Hillary Clinton emails. He also used a laptop in her office that was, according to investigators, concealed in an “unused crevice” in the Rayburn House Office Building. It is being examined by police but Wasserman-Schultz tried strenuously to recover it before it could be looked at. She pressured the Chief of the Capitol Police Matthew Verderosa to return it, threatening him by saying “you should expect that there will be consequences.”
There is another odd connection of Imran Awan that goes back to the circle around prominent neoconservative Paul Wolfowitz during the Iraq War. In late 2002 and early 2003, Wolfowitz regularly met secretly with a group of Iraqi expatriates who resided in the Washington area and were opponents of the Saddam Hussein regime. The Iraqis had not been in their country of birth for many years but they claimed to have regular contact with well-informed family members and political allies. The Iraqi advisers provided Wolfowitz with a now-familiar refrain, i.e. that the Iraqi people would rise up to support invading Americans and overthrow the hated Saddam. They would greet their liberators with bouquets of flowers and shouts of joy.
The Iraqis were headed by one Dr. Ali A. al-Attar, born in Baghdad to Iranian parents in 1963, a 1989 graduate of the American University of Beirut Faculty of Medicine. He subsequently emigrated to the United States and set up a practice in internal medicine in Greenbelt, Md., a suburb of Washington D.C. Al-Attar eventually expanded his business to include nine practices that he wholly or partly owned in Virginia and Maryland but he eventually lost his license due to “questionable billing practices” as well as “unprofessional conduct” due to having sex with patients.
Al-Attar was investigated by the FBI and eventually indicted for large scale health care fraud in 2008-09. This included charging insurance companies more than $2.3 million for services their patients did not actually receive, with many of the false claims using names of diplomats and employees enrolled in a group plan at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington. In one case, the doctors claimed an embassy employee visited three of their clinics every 26 days between May 2007 and August 2008 to have the same testing done each time. The insurance company paid the doctors $55,000 for more than 400 nonexistent procedures for the one patient alone.
Al-Attar fled the United States after the indictment to avoid arrest and imprisonment and is now considered a fugitive from justice. Late in 2012 he was observed in Beirut, Lebanon, conversing with a Hezbollah official. Al-Attar is of interest in this case because he appears to have been a friend of Imran Awan and also loaned him $100,000, which was never repaid. The FBI is currently looking into any possible espionage involving the two men as Awan and his associates clearly had access to classified information while working in the House of Representatives.
The Imran Awan case is certainly of considerable interest not only for what the investigation eventually turns up but also for what it reveals about how things work in Congress. One might well ask how foreign-born IT specialists are selected and vetted prior to being significantly overpaid and allowed to work on computers in congressional offices. And the ability of those same individuals to keep working even after the relevant congressmen have been warned that their employee was under investigation has to be explained beyond Wasserman-Schultz’s comment that Awan had not committed any crime. And how does “bankrupt” Imran Awan wind up with a high-priced lawyer to defend him who is associated with the Clintons? Finally, there are the lingering concerns about the unfortunately well-established Russiagate narrative. Did the Russians really hack into the DNC, or was it some kind of inside job carried out by someone actually working for Debbie Wasserman-Schultz for reasons that have yet to be determined, possibly to include espionage? There are many questions—and so far, few answers.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.