There has been surprisingly little media follow-up on the story about the July 25th Dulles Airport arrest of House of Representatives’ employed Pakistani-American IT specialist Imran Awan, who was detained for bank fraud while he was allegedly fleeing to Pakistan. The mainstream media somewhat predictably produced minimal press coverage before the story died. The speed at which the news vanished has prompted some observers, including Breitbart, to sound the alarm over a suspected cover-up of possible exposure of classified information or even espionage that just might be part of the story that we are now calling Russiagate.
To be sure, the tale is a strange one with plenty of unsavory links. Thirty-seven year old Awan, his wife, sister-in-law and two brothers Abid and Jamal worked as IT administrators, full and part-time, for between 30 and 80 congressmen, all Democrats, including former Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairman 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. Nor were their claimed skills at IT administration confirmed as their work pattern reportedly turned out to consist more of absences than time spent in the House offices. One congressional IT staffer described them as “ghost employees.”
At one point, Imran brought into the House as a colleague one Rao Abbas, someone to whom he owed money, best distinguished by his being recently fired by McDonald’s. Abbas lived in the basement of a house owned by Imran’s wife as a rental property. He may have had no qualifications at all to perform IT but the congressmen in question did not seem to notice. Abbas wound up working, on the rare occasions that he went into the building, in the office of Congressman Patrick Murphy, who was at the time a member of the House Intelligence Committee as well as for Florida Congressman Theo Deutch. He was paid $250,000.
To cover for all the non-working but on the payroll employees, Imran also hired a high school friend Haseeb Rana, who actually did know something about computers. Rana reportedly did “all the work” and kept wanting to quit for that reason. It was also against House rules for an IT administrator to fill in for someone else, as Rana routinely did, since each such employee had be personally registered by the congressman.
The Awans and their two friends were all taken on as salaried employees of the House of Representatives at senior civil service level paygrades of ca. $165,000 annually, which normally is what is paid to highly experienced senior managers or chiefs of staff. Imran’s younger brother Jamal was only twenty years old when he was hired at that level in 2014.
The process of granting security clearances to Congressional staff is not exactly transparent, but it is not unlike the procedures 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 then 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.
It is not known if the Awans, who were working for several Intelligence Committee members simultaneously, would have been involved or had access to the computers able to pull up classified material being used by those staffers, 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.” Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that that was not the case. In office environments, the IT administrators routinely ask for passwords if they are checking out the system. WikiLeaks emails confirm that Imran certainly had passwords relating to Congressman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz as well as to others on her staff.
Congress paid the Awans more than $4 million between 2004 and 2016 at their $165,000 salary level, a sum that some sources suggest to be three or four times higher than the norm for government contractor IT specialists performing similar work at the same level of alleged competency. Four of the Awans were among the 500 highest paid of the 15,000 congressional staffers. The considerable and consistent level of overpayment has not been explained by the congressmen involved. In spite of all that income being generated, Imran Awan declared bankruptcy in 2010 claiming losses of $1 million on a car business that he owned in Falls Church Virginia that ran up debts and borrowed money that it failed to repay. The business was named Cars International A, abbreviated on its business cards as CIA.
The Awans family also was noted for its brushes with the law and internal discord, though it is doubtful if the congressional employers were aware of their outside-of-the-office behavior. The brothers were on the receiving end of a number of traffic citations, including DUI, and were constantly scheming to generate income, including what must have been a hilarious phone conversation to their credit union in which Imran pretended to be his own wife in order to wire money to Pakistan. They were on bad terms with their father and step-mother, including forging a document to cheat their step-mother of an insurance payment and even holding her “captive” so she could not see their dying father. Their father even changed his last name to dissociate himself from them.
As of February 2016, the Awans came under suspicion for having set up an operation involving double billing as well as the theft and reselling of government owned computer equipment. It was also believed that they had somehow obtained entry to much of the House of Representatives’ computer network as well as to other information in the individual offices’ separate computer systems that they were in theory not allowed to access. 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 members and associates, 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 that led to the arrest, in which Imran 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 Virginia, was largely a misunderstanding It has been described as something “extremely minor” by his lawyer Chris Gowen, a high priced Washington attorney who has worked for the Clintons personally, the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative.
It turned out that Imran and his wife no longer lived in the house which had been turned into a rental property, a clear case of bank fraud. The Awans had tenants 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 owners. 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 was connected to the Democratic National Committee server. It is believed that Imran sent stolen government files to a remote personal server. It may have been located in his former residence in Lorton Virginia, where the smashed equipment was found, or as far away as Pakistan. As Imran Awan is a dual-national, born in Pakistan, the possibility of espionage also had to be considered. By some accounts the Awan family traveled back to Pakistan frequently, where Imran was treated royally by local officialdom, suggesting that he may have been doing favors for the not very friendly government in Islamabad.
Considering the possible criminal activity that Imran and his family might have been engaged in and which was still under investigation, the Capitol Police and FBI determined that he should be stopped in his attempt to flee to Pakistan. The charge that Awan was actually arrested on at the airport, bank fraud, was an easy way to hold him as it 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 had wired the credit union money and some cash of his own 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 had on her $12,400 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 was able to see the incriminating Hillary Clinton emails. He used a laptop in her office as well that was, according to investigators, concealed in an “unused crevice” in the Rayburn House Office Building. It is currently 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.” Initially Wasserman-Schultz refused to cooperate with the police, refusing to provide her passwords and not permitting them to open her computers, but Fox News reports that she has recently apparently allowed the authorities to do a scan.
There is another odd connection of Imran Awan that goes back to the neocon circle around 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 Maryland, 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 2008-9, which 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.
Dr. Ali A. 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 international espionage specifically involving the two men as Awan and his associates clearly had access to classified information while working in the House of Representatives that would have been of interest to any number of foreign governments.
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 actually work in congress and in the government more generally speaking. I don’t know which of the allegations about what might have taken place are true, but there is certainly a lot to consider. Whether the case is investigated and prosecuted without fear or favor will depend on the Department of Justice and FBI, but I for one was appalled to learn that the official who quite likely will oversee the investigation of the Awans is one Steven Wasserman, Assistant Attorney for the District of Columbia, the brother of Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. If that should actually occur, it would be a huge conflict of interest and it has to be wondered if Wasserman would have the integrity to recuse himself.
There are many questions regarding the Awan case. One might reasonably 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, which may have been true but one would expect congressmen to err on the side of caution over an issue that could easily have national security ramifications. And how does a recently bankrupt and unemployed Imran Awan wind up with a high-priced lawyer to defend him who is associated with the Clintons? Would that kind of lawyer even take a relatively minor bank fraud case if that were all that is involved? Finally, there are the lingering concerns about the unfortunately well-established Russiagate narrative. Did the Russians really hack into the DNC or were there other possibilities, to include some kind of inside job, a “leak,” carried out by someone working for the government or DNC for reasons that have yet to be determined, possibly even someone actually employed by DNC chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz? There are certainly many issues that the public needs to know more about and so far, there are not enough answers.
[An earlier version of this article appeared on The American Conservative on August 3rd]