Two years ago, the executive director of the Kashmiri American Council (KAC), Ghulam Nabi Fai, was riding high in Washington, D.C. circles. In March 2010, he hosted a pricey fundraiser in his own home for Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN), the powerful chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe and Eurasia and co-chairman of the Congressional Pakistan Caucus.
In 2004, Fai testified before Burton’s subcommittee. Internal KAC documents show that in just 2007 alone, he had 33 meetings with members of Congress, congressional staff, the Bush administration’s National Security Council, and the State Department. He led congressional delegations to the disputed Kashmir region, and over the years nearly three dozen different members of Congress of both parties attended or spoke at Fai’s annual Kashmir Peace Conference held on Capitol Hill. KAC’s events were even broadcast live on C-SPAN.
One thing that bought Fai so much access was that Fai and the KAC board of directors generously spread campaign contributions all over Capitol Hill to members of both political parties. However, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, the bulk of contributions by Fai, KAC’s board, and Fai’s associates went to Burton and the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
That all changed on July 19, 2011, when Fai was arrested by the FBI not far from his Fairfax, Virginia home, where he had held the fundraiser for Burton sixteen months earlier. And just last month, a year after his arrest, Fai reported to federal prison.
According to an affidavit by FBI Special Agent Sarah Webb Linden that was the basis for the criminal complaint, an extensive investigation into Fai’s activities showed that all of Fai’s efforts over the past 20 years had been illegally financed and directed by Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI.
The FBI affidavit stated that Fai was in constant contact with his Pakistani ISI handlers: since June 2008, Fai and his handlers exchanged more than 4,000 messages.
The FBI also found that Fai and KAC had received more than $4 million from the ISI since KAC’s founding in 1990 through the use of U.S.-based Pakistani-American straw donors who would donate to KAC and receive tax deductions, and then be reimbursed in Pakistan by the ISI. This was arranged through Fai’s conspirator Fazeer Ahmad, a U.S. citizen who lived in Pakistan and was charged along with Fai in the case.
These straw-donor transactions concealed that KAC was not an independent public relations effort by U.S. citizens to advocate on behalf of the Kashmiri people, but rather an influence operation run by the intelligence agency of a hostile foreign power, one intended to influence members of Congress to shape U.S. foreign policy in Pakistan’s favor. The stated targets for much of KAC’s operations were the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
KAC’s activities didn’t have to be illegal. All Fai had to do was register his organization with the attorney general under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Doing so would have exposed the Pakistani ISI’s role in the operation, however, and would have closed most doors in Washington, D.C., to Fai and KAC.
The FBI gave Fai sufficient opportunity to come clean about his operation and its ties to Pakistani intelligence. In March 2007, the FBI interviewed Fai, who claimed he had never met anyone affiliated with the government of Pakistan.
In March 2010, the Justice Department sent Fai a letter stating that press reports in India had identified him as an agent of Pakistan, and that if true, he was required to file as a foreign agent with the attorney general’s office under FARA. In an email reply, Fai stated that KAC “has never engaged in activities on behalf of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan or any other foreign entity.”
What undoubtedly prompted that Justice Department letter was a meeting that Fai had with two of his Pakistani ISI handlers in Geneva just days before. In that March 2010 strategy meeting, according to notes of the meeting obtained by U.S. Customs officials when Fai reentered the U.S., Fai briefed his handlers on KAC’s 2010 goals and the targets of his efforts. Most notably: “E.B. [Executive Branch], State, DoD, WH [White House]; Media, Think tank; Congress; U.N.”
According to the FBI, the two ISI handlers Fai met with in that March 2010 Geneva strategy meeting were Sohail Mahmood and Major General Mumtaz Ahmad Bajwa, the then-head of the ISI’s Security Directorate, which oversees operations of several Kashmiri terrorist groups.
Bajwa had also attended Fai’s Tenth International Kashmir Peace Conference on Capitol Hill in July 2009. Also at the event was Fai’s then-ISI handler, Lt. Col. Touqeer Mehmood Butt, whose visa application noted his employer as “Pakistani Ministry of Defence, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Islamabad, Pakistan.” Among the speakers at that conference were Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA), Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA), Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY), and the ubiquitous Rep. Dan Burton, as seen in the video below:
The event was even covered by the Hindi-language section of Voice of America:
The day after the 2009 KAC conference ended, Bajwa and Butt met with Fai in KAC’s Washington, D.C. office and had a conversation that was wiretapped by the FBI.
According to Agent Linden’s affidavit, the wiretap transcript shows that Fai gave his Pakistani ISI handlers a review of his efforts (p. 24):
His comments included the history of the establishment of KAC; KAC’s primary lobbying targets within the U.S. (to wit, White House, State Department, Pentagon, Congress, and the United Nations); KAC’s prior encounters with U.S. and Pakistani politicians; and Fai’s relationship with the Pakistani Embassy in Washington.
Agent Linden’s affidavit (p. 20) also notes a plan of action submitted by Fai to his handlers in December 2008 for the incoming Obama administration in 2009, outlining his strategy:
[S]ecure Congressional support to encourage the Executive Branch to support self determination in Kashmire, build new alliances in the State Department, the National Security Council, the Congress, and the Pentagon, and to expand KAC’s media efforts.
Fai’s budget for KAC for 2009 was $738,000, which included $100,000 intended for campaign contributions for members of Congress. After his ISI handlers balked, Fai reduced his budget to $638,000, most of which would be passed from the ISI to KAC through the U.S.-based straw donors.
The proposed activities for KAC in 2010 approved by the Pakistani ISI listed 61 events that Fai had planned for the year, including 10 briefings/events for members of Congress and their staff. In 2011, Fai was ordered by his handler to cultivate relationships with eleven identified members of the media and six intellectuals from D.C. think-tanks.
Under normal circumstances, you might think it would be front-page news that Pakistani intelligence had successfully penetrated the inner recesses of Capitol Hill and the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations; Pakistani intelligence had conducted a 20-year influence operation; and Pakistani intelligence made campaign contributions primarily to Republican members of Congress (including Burton — one of the most vocal critics of President Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal) and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. You would expect the establishment media to subject the issue to investigation rivaling the Jack Abramoff scandal during the Bush administration.
You would be wrong.
While Fai’s arrest was noted by many press outlets and a smattering of articles appeared in the subsequent days, within a week the story virtually vanished from the establishment media.
The New York Times reported on Fai’s arrest, and the following day published an article announcing denials by Burton and his congressional colleagues that they had any knowledge of Fai’s ties to Pakistani intelligence. The last mention in the newspaper of the matter was less than a week later, when they reported that the FBI had attempted to arrest Fai several times, only to be stymied by the State Department and the CIA, who wanted to avoid heightening tensions with Pakistan. And except for a two-sentence mention on the New York Times India blog, the matter then disappeared from their pages entirely.
The Fai arrest got the same treatment from the Washington Post, which ran two stories and a short blog post in the days following Fai’s arrest, and later made short mention of his guilty plea. The paper has published nothing since.
The only full-scale treatment of the Fai matter and his influence on Capitol Hill was an October 2011 investigative piece by ProPublica researchers published by The Atlantic that outlined Fai’s background and lobbying efforts, as well as the extensive evidence compiled by the FBI in the case.
One might have at least expected a flurry of reporting when Fai pled guilty and was later sentenced to two years in prison, Alas, no. Nor was there any discussion of the 26-page Statement of Facts signed by Fai where he admitted in detail to his crimes outlined in FBI Agent Linden’s July 2011 affidavit.
The ambivalence about one of the biggest foreign intelligence influence operations on Capitol Hill in our lifetimes extended to Capitol Hill itself. No handwringing, no committee hearings or investigations, no press conferences by members of Congress explaining exactly how they had been duped for 20 years.
The Hill also made short work of the Fai affair, merely noting his arrest, guilty plea, and sentencing. No in-depth reporting, no stonewalling by congressional spokesmen, and certainly no chasing down members of Congress in the halls asking for comment.
About the only response from Congress was a two-paragraph press release from Rep. Burton’s office claiming he knew nothing, and promising to turn over the amount received by Fai to the Boy Scouts. In a brief interview with Rep. Joe Pitts by Lancaster (PA) Online, Pitts said in response to Fai’s arrest: “It never appeared to me that Dr. Fai was a lobbyist for Pakistan.” With respect to Fai’s attempt to influence him, “it didn’t work”.
In recent months I’ve conducted briefings for congressional staff and members of Congress on the Fai matter, and without exception have been met with blank faces and surprised stares.
So was the 20-year illegal lobbying effort by Ghulam Nabi Fai on behalf of Pakistan’s intelligence service really much ado about nothing? Was Rep. Pitts right that Pakistan’s influence operation on Capitol Hill “didn’t work”?
Or might there be something larger at work? Could it be that there’s more to the story of Ghulam Nabi Fai and the Kashmiri American Council than what you read in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The Hill?
The story of Pakistan’s two-decade influence operation in the heart of Congress, the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon is the biggest Capitol Hill spy scandal you’ve never heard about.
In Part Two, I’ll tell you the reason why.
In Part One, I explored the court documents in the case of Ghulam Nabi Fai, the executive director of the Kashmiri American Center (KAC) who admitted in a 26-page Statement of Facts at the time of his plea deal last December that he was an influence agent working for the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI. He penetrated the halls of Congress and successive administrations over a 20-year period to help shape U.S. foreign policy in Pakistan’s favor.
As noted in the affidavit by FBI Special Agent Sarah Webb Linden that was the basis for the criminal charges filed in federal court against Fai, he was in constant communication with his ISI handlers, exchanging more than 4,000 emails between June 2008 and his arrest in July 2011. According to the FBI, the ISI spent more than $4 million funding Fai’s operation, funneling money to straw donors in the Pakistani-American community. The operation was coordinated by Zaheer Ahmad, a U.S. citizen living in Pakistan who was charged along with Fai in the case.
As I noted in Part One, while the establishment media reported on Fai’s arrest, the story virtually disappeared from all of the leading news outlets. But while the U.S. media was ignoring the scandal entirely, the matter was the subject of considerable media scrutiny in Indian and Pakistani media.
One curious episode that received no attention from the U.S. media was the strange death of Fai’s conspirator, Zaheer Ahmad.
Several months after Fai’s arrest, an extensive investigative piece (the only one ever published on the topic) by ProPublica noted Ahmad’s ties to Pakistani nuclear scientist Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood. Mahmood had met with Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri prior to 9/11, wanting to help al-Qaeda obtain nuclear weapons. Ahmad told the ProPublica researchers:
In a phone conversation, Ahmad said he was free and working at Shifa. “Until this case is finished, I can’t discuss this,” Ahmad told a ProPublica reporter. “And it could be dangerous for you, too.”
Two days after the ProPublica exposé appeared, a bombshell report from the Hindustan Times placed Ahmad (Fai’s conspirator) at the meeting with Mahmood, Bin Laden, and Zawahiri just weeks prior to the 9/11 attacks.
Two days after that Hindustan Times article appeared tying him to the meeting with al-Qaeda leaders, Ahmad, who was living in Pakistan, dropped dead from a “cerebral hemorrhage”.
So within one week the following happened: ProPublica published an exposé examining Fai’s efforts on Capitol Hill on behalf of Pakistani intelligence; another report tied Fai’s charged conspirator in the case with meeting with Osama bin Laden just weeks prior to the 9/11 attacks; and the conspirator dropped dead.
Yet that was not sufficient to stoke the curiosity of the American media.
Why did this story get buried?
The official response to that question will be that Fai’s arrest was part of the diplomatic game between the U.S., India, and Pakistan, which is entirely true. In fact, as the New York Times reported, the FBI’s efforts to arrest Fai in 2011 were repeatedly opposed by the State Department and the CIA.
And considering the tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan after the raid that killed bin Laden in May 2011 and the subsequent closing of U.S. supply routes through Pakistan into Afghanistan, that certainly explains the reason why the U.S. government was so willing to cut a plea deal with Fai (which it did).
But it doesn’t explain the hands-off policy of the story by the U.S. media.
One possible reason: Fai’s operation had seen considerable success under the Clinton and Bush administrations, and documents obtained by the FBI in the raid of KAC showed that Fai anticipated his efforts would flourish in the new Obama administration. Was the media merely protecting Obama?
According to the FBI, a “plan of action” for 2009 submitted to his ISI handlers showed Fai’s plan to expand his operations by building new alliances with the State Department, the National Security Council, and the Pentagon under the incoming Obama administration. In 2010, his list of proposed activities included 61 key events planned for the year, including 10 briefings for members of Congress and their staff. In 2011, Fai was directed by the Pakistan Embassy in D.C. to expand his outreach even further by contacting and building relationships with 11 members of the media and six think-tank personnel.
It’s doubtful anyone in the establishment media was eager to investigate whom at the State Department, White House/National Security Council, and the Pentagon Fai had been meeting with.
Another possible reason for the media’s lack of attention to the Fai scandal can be seen in Fai’s own biography:
His articles appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Plain Dealer, Baltimore Sun, and many other foreign policy journals in the United States and around the world.
Not only did he have the political establishment fooled for 20 years, he had the media establishment snookered as well.
However, while the diplomatic sensitivities of the Fai case, the protection of the Obama administration, and self-interest were all possible contributing factors to the media’s sitting on the biggest spy scandal on Capitol Hill in recent memory, there is a more evident motive as to why the media took a pass.
Ghulam Nabi Fai was not only active in leadership roles in many of the largest Islamic groups in the U.S. — particularly those leading the U.S. government’s Islamic “outreach” efforts. These groups also actively aided in his operations.
The ProPublica exposé noted some of these ties:
The late Ismail Raji al-Faruqi was a professor specializing in Islam at Temple and would soon help found the International Institute of Islamic Thought. (The institute later came under investigation in a federal probe into terrorism funding, although no charges were filed.) Another professor, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a respected Islamic scholar, was trying to “Islamicize” the social sciences, Fai said.
At Temple, Fai became president of the Muslim Students Association of the U.S. & Canada, an organization started in part by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had spread from Egypt through the Middle East. Some branches of the Brotherhood were hardline; others, more moderate.
Fai also started working for the ISI in about 1985 while at Temple, according to correspondence cited by the FBI, although the affidavit does not make clear what he was doing.
After earning his doctorate in 1988, Fai joined the advisory council for the Islamic Society of North America, an umbrella group started by the Muslim Students Association that also received Saudi funding. [PP – as federal prosecutors noted, Fai falsely claimed to have received his doctorate and presented himself as “Doctor”, but in fact he never obtained the degree.]
But that’s not all:
Incorporation documents filed in Maryland in April 1990 show Fai was one of three people who established the Kashmir center. A second founder was Rafia Syeed, the wife of Sayyid Syeed, one of the organizers of ISNA. The third founder’s father, who retired from the Pakistani military, also held a key post in a charity run by Fai’s alleged accomplice, Zaheer Ahmad. The Syeeds did not reply to requests for comment. The third founder, Mohammad Bilal Yousaf, denied knowing Fai. “I have never heard of Dr. Fai before, only what’s been reported in the media,” he said.
IRS filings show the group got startup funds from two board members and a $20,000 loan from the North American Islamic Trust, an ISNA-linked group that holds titles to about 300 U.S. mosques, Islamic centers and schools.
To summarize what we know of Ghulam Nabi Fai:
- He came to the U.S. to study under one of the top Muslim Brotherhood leaders, Ismail Faruqi, who founded the International Institute for Islamic Thought, which was identified by U.S. Customs as the hub of terrorism financing in the U.S.
- Fai later served as national president of the Muslim Students Association (MSA), during which time, according to an email cited in the FBI affidavit, he began serving on behalf of his Pakistani ISI masters.
- He then served on the Shura Council for the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA).
- The wife of ISNA’s longtime Secretary General and present Director of Interfaith Outreach Sayyid Syeed was one of the original incorporators of KAC. Syeed had preceded Fai as national president of the MSA.
- According to IRS filings, KAC’s Pakistani intelligence influence operation was launched with a $20,000 loan from the North American Islamic Trust (NAIT), which owns the property to hundreds of mosques around the country.
No doubt these organizations would say that their associations with Fai are ancient history and that they had no knowledge that Fai was operating on behalf of Pakistani intelligence.
But Fai’s involvement with these organizations continues to this day.
In fact, just two weeks before his arrest, Fai was speaking at ISNA’s annual conference, as seen in this video:
After his arrest, many of these Islamic groups — again, which are closely tied to the U.S. government — issued a statement in support of Fai under the rubric of the “American Muslim Taskforce” (AMT). This is how the AMT describes itself:
AMT is an umbrella organization that includes American Muslim Alliance (AMA), American Muslims for Palestine (AMP), Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), Muslim Alliance in North America (MANA), Muslim American Society-Freedom (MAS-F), Muslim Legal Fund of America (MLFA), Muslim Ummah of North America (MUNA), National Association of Imams (NAIF) and United Muslims of America (UMA).
After that August 2, 2011 AMT press release, media mentions of Fai’s case, save for his plea deal and sentencing, virtually disappear.
Even after Fai entered into a plea deal and signed a 26-page Statement of Facts admitting his work on Capitol Hill on behalf of Pakistani intelligence, these same Islamic groups continue to support Fai.
In fact, after Fai’s sentencing and before he reported to federal prison, many of these U.S. Islamic groups hosted fundraising dinners across the country in support of Fai and his legal expenses, hailing him as a hero.
One of these events was held in Newark, California, on June 21, and was promoted by the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) and co-sponsored by such prominent groups as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Muslim American Society (MAS), and ISNA.
Here’s a flyer for the event:
The audio of the event speakers in support of Fai can be found here.
ICNA president Zahid Bukhari sent a letter in support of Fai to the federal judge, urging a lenient sentence:
Dr. Fai was himself a victim of the Indian Government’s inhumane polices in the occupied Kashmir. He was not able to visit his parents and family living in Kashmir since his departure from that part of world several decades ago. In America, he became the globally recognized face of the plight of Kashmiri people.
He presented the Kashmiri case in 17 sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva from 2006 until June 2011. He participated in all summits of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) since 1991, and met with over 50 Heads of State over the last 20 years. He addressed the preliminary session at the Centennial Conference of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, held in Chicago in August 1993. Dr. Fai also organized ten International Kashmir Peace Conferences at the Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.
Federal prosecutors told the court in a sentencing memo that Fai’s cooperation with the FBI was lacking following his plea deal, particularly noting his lack of cooperation regarding “his involvement with the Muslim Brotherhood, and Pakistani terrorist groups.” (p. 9, fn. 3)
The story of the Pakistani ISI’s 20-year penetration into the heart of Congress, the State Department, the National Security Council, and the Pentagon should have been big news, especially since the U.S. government has identified the ISI as a terrorist organization in military tribunal documents.
But it wasn’t.
The media savaged Rep. Michele Bachmann and her congressional colleagues for daring to request an investigation into organizations that the U.S. government has gone into federal court and identified as front groups for the international Muslim Brotherhood yet somehow still considers helpful outreach partners. The story of how these same Islamic groups and leaders rushed to the support of Ghulam Nabi Fai and hailed Pakistan intelligence’s influence man on Capitol Hill as a hero even after admitting his crimes should be equally major news.
But it’s even worse than that. Fai was not only supported by these Islamic organizations, he served in senior leadership of these very organizations, which the U.S. government continues to consult with to help shape our domestic and foreign policy. These very same organizations are welcomed into the halls of Congress, the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon to this day.
That’s the reason I believe the story of Ghulam Nabi Fai, the Kashmiri American Council, and the Pakistani ISI is the biggest D.C. spy scandal you’ve never heard about.
The staggering implications of what federal prosecutors presented in court about this matter under any other circumstances would have shaken Washington, D.C., to its core. Instead, the political and media establishment closes their eyes in self-imposed blindness.
And in the end, it will be the American people who reap the consequences.