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IRS employs former cop convicted of FBI snooping

New questions arise about background check system

- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Internal Revenue Service, already facing accusations that its workers improperly snooped through tax files, has hired a former police officer convicted just a few years ago of illegally accessing FBI records and providing information to a subject of a counterterrorism investigation involving an infamous al Qaeda figure.

Mohammad Weiss Rasool, or Weiss Russell as he is known at the IRS, was sentenced to two years of probation in 2008 after pleading guilty in federal court to illegally accessing the FBI's National Crime Information Center database to run license tag numbers for a friend he thought was being followed. That friend, it turned out, was the subject of an undercover FBI operation and a close associate of the al Qaeda-linked cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, the American Islamist militant who preached to three of the 9/11 hijackers and inspired the Fort Hood shootings, according to court records and interviews.

Government watchdogs told The Washington Times that Mr. Rasool's hiring by the IRS raises red flags about the quality of the federal government's background checks and is alarming given his previous admission that he misused a police database.

At the IRS, Mr. Rasool serves as a financial management analyst — three rungs away from the highest-level career position — working audit-related issues and matters. He was hired by the IRS after he served his probationary period.

"This is absolutely outrageous," said Chris Farrell, director of investigations at Judicial Watch, a government watchdog group. "Rasool has already demonstrated he's not worthy of a position of trust within the government — he's already broken one public oath — the last place you'd want him is at the IRS."

Judicial Watch has started its own investigation into the matter, demanding that the IRS explain how Mr. Rasool got his job and who at the agency, or within the Obama administration, made the final call on his employment.

Mr. Rasool declined to comment for the record when contacted by The Times.

The IRS told The Times that under federal privacy rules it cannot comment on individual employees within the agency, but that all workers undergo federal background checks and screening reviews as administered by the agency.

"It's astounding to me, with his activities at the police department, that he should have a position within the federal government that involves a matter of trust and responsibility," said Philip Manuel, a former U.S. counterintelligence agent and chairman of the investigative firm MBD International. "There's something fishy here as to how someone with his background could get cleared."

Congress and federal agencies have been re-examining the quality of background checks after several high-profile lapses involving figures such as National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden and Washington Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis.

"You've got to question the validity and thoroughness the federal government is taking to clear its employees," said Mr. Manuel, who for years worked as a top investigator on the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

Mr. Rasool immigrated to the U.S. from Afghanistan in 1983 and became a naturalized United States citizen in 1996. He worked for the Fairfax police squad for eight years starting in 2000 and eventually was promoted to the rank of sergeant.

Mr. Rasool's improper access of the police database was discovered only after the FBI's 2005 counterterrorism effort against one of al-Awlaki's associates was foiled and agents traced the leak back to Mr. Rasool, according to a person close to the investigation who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Mr. Rasool met the friend at his local mosque in Virginia, and the man asked the police officer to check out the license plates of three vehicles he thought were following him. Mr. Rasool did so and determined that the vehicles were not licensed to any individual, but from a licensing company. Mr. Rasool then phoned the man with that information — a call that was intercepted by the FBI, according to court records. Because of Mr. Rasool's police experience, prosecutors argued at the time, he should have known those vehicles were used by the FBI for undercover missions.

Mr. Rasool, in his defense, said he had no idea the man was the target of a federal sting and was just helping out a concerned citizen. He argued that his only fault was not filling out the proper paperwork or notifying his boss that he was searching the database.

Mr. Rasool's telephone call "likely alerted the subject of the FBI investigation which had a disruptive effect on the pending counterterrorism case," court records said. Indeed, when the feds went to arrest the man at 6 a.m. — in what was supposed to be a surprise operation — the man was already dressed and destroying evidence, according to statements U.S. prosecutor Jeanine Linehan, made at the time.

The FBI and federal prosecutors were hoping to develop evidence that the man was directly linked to al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-born U.S. citizen who for years was linked by the FBI and CIA as an al Qaeda recruiter before he was killed in a drone strike in Yemen in September 2011, according to the source directly familiar with the investigation.

Because of the Mr. Rasool's actions, FBI agents had to move more quickly and never located the evidence they sought, the source said.

Mr. Rasool's friend from the mosque was later convicted on criminal immigration charges and deported to his native Saudi Arabia, with federal investigators frustrated that they could not secure a more serious conviction linking him to Mr. al-Awlaki or terrorism, the source said.

When the FBI confronted Mr. Rasool about his computer inquires on behalf of the friend in 2007, Mr. Rasool initially denied knowing him. It was only when federal agents presented Mr. Rasool with the intercepted call that he acknowledged checking the databases, according to court records.

When federal officials conducted their investigation into Mr. Rasool, they also discovered that he made frequent computer inquiries in the National Crime Information Center system's Violent Crime and Terrorist Offender File, about himself and others at his mosque — all unauthorized.

Mr. Rasool went into the database about 17 times in 18 months, according to court records. Mr. Rasool's attorney at the time, James W. Hundley, told the court that his client was checking the database because of increased scrutiny of Muslims in the U.S. after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and didn't want anyone to be in the database mistakenly.

The U.S. attorney's office didn't buy it and requested prison time after Mr. Rasool took a polygraph administered by the FBI. According to court records, Mr. Rasool employed known tactics to beat the polygraph, and the FBI concluded his results proved inconclusive. The prosecution called it "deceptive behavior," and when they asked him to stop these countermeasures, he resisted.

The judge, however, found no evidence that Mr. Rasool intended to disrupt the federal counterterrorism investigation. He did admit, though, that some of Mr. Rasool's conduct "appears to strain credulity to this court." Because Mr. Rasool admitted to searching the police databases illegally, he was sentenced to two years of probation and fined $1,000.

Mr. Rasool then resigned from the Fairfax County police department, went back to school, changed his name to Mr. Russell and was hired by the IRS in into a job that starts at $89,924 year with the potential of making more than $100,000, according to USAJobs, the federal government's online job database.

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