FBI under scrutiny for handling of past investigation of Orlando killer
© Francis Rivera

FBI Director James Comey is promising to launch a review into his agency’s handling of a previously known terrorism suspect who killed 49 people late Sunday at an Orlando nightclub, amid allegations that it may have overlooked crucial warning signs.

The suspect in the attack, Omar Mateen, had been known to the FBI for years, with officials interviewing him three times in the course of earlier investigations. 

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Comey said he has faith that FBI officials did all they could, but said a review of the bureau’s actions is necessary.

“Based on what I see so far, it looks like this was done well,” Comey told reporters at a press briefing in Washington.

“That said, we will scrub it very hard to see if there are things we can learn or should’ve done better, because this is a challenge we face and will face for the foreseeable future.”

Scrutiny has mounted on the FBI since the assault at a gay nightclub in Orlando. Forty-nine people were killed and dozens were wounded in what is now the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.  

The bureau interviewed Mateen three times going back to 2013 as part of one investigation into him and a separate probe focusing on another American who became a suicide bomber for an al Qaeda-linked group in Syria. That preliminary investigation included the use of confidential informants, surveillance, review of electronic records and other investigative tools, but it was closed in 2014 when the bureau failed to find anything incriminating, Comey said.

“As I would hope the American people would want, we don’t keep people under investigation indefinitely,” Comey said. “If we get to a point when we’ve exhausted the tools we have and we don’t see predication for continuing it, then we close it.” 

President Obama, too, came to bat for the bureau without prompting, suggesting that the White House anticipates backlash.

“The FBI followed the procedures that they were supposed to and did a proper job,” Obama said in remarks from the Oval Office.

Still, questions were raised in the immediate aftermath of the shooting as to whether closer attention should have been paid to a man who thrice raised red flags. 

“It was very sad because he did slip through the cracks, and the FBI has to be very upset about it,” Donald TrumpDonald TrumpScarborough, Brzezinski named rabbit after Trump Trump Jr. adds to legal team ahead of Senate meeting Conway: Trump doesn't think he's lying on voter fraud, wiretap claims MORE, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, said during an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

“I’m a big fan of the FBI. But they have to be very, very distraught.”

The FBI has launched hundreds of investigations in the U.S. related to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which Mateen pledged allegiance to in the hours before he was gunned down early Sunday morning. The sheer size of the potential extremist pool might be contributing to the difficulty it has, some suspect.

“The FBI is overburdened and undermanned,” said Michael Pregent, an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute and former intelligence officer.

“But there’s still the intelligence sharing aspect that troubles me,” he added. “There’s no doubt in my mind that Orlando law enforcement is wondering why the hell the FBI didn’t tell them that this guy had popped up twice on their radar for terrorist leanings.”

The questions are likely to come to the fore when intelligence officials deliver separate closed-door briefings with the House and Senate on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively.

“Is it frustrating? Yes,” echoed Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the head of the House Homeland Security Committee, in an interview on CNN. “Are we going to be looking at that and asking what happened? Of course.”

Democrats on and off Capitol Hill who have previously pressed for greater restrictions on gun sales renewed their arguments on Monday, arguing that people on suspected terror watch lists should not be allowed to buy firearms.

“Even as we make sure our security officials get the tools they need to prevent attacks, it’s essential we stop terrorists from getting the tools they need to carry out attacks,” Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump Jr. adds to legal team ahead of Senate meeting Trump: Democrats, Russians laughing at 'phony Russian Witch Hunt' Scaramucci makes Sunday shows debut with vow to stop WH leaks MORE, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said at a rally in Ohio.

“And that is especially true when it comes to assault weapons like those used in Orlando and San Bernardino.”

During the 10 months that he was under investigation, Mateen was placed on a federal watch list. But he was taken off the list when the investigation was closed.

He would have been able to buy a gun during that time if he had tried, but federal officials would have been notified of the purchase.

Mateen went through a normal background check process and purchased his weapons legally at a Florida gun shop early this month, the owner told reporters.

On Monday, the FBI completed its second day of investigation into the motivation of the shooter.

In Washington, Comey told reporters that he had appeared to express support for multiple different and at times contrasting extremist groups that are known enemies of the United States.

The FBI director said there are strong indications that Mateen had been radicalized on the internet, but there is no indication he was part of a terrorist network or had direction from an overseas terror group.

“Our work is very challenging. We are looking for needles in a nationwide haystack,” Comey said. “But we’re also called upon to figure out which pieces of hay might someday become needles.

“That is hard work. If we can find a way to do that better we will.”

Comey declined throughout the briefing to use the name of the shooter.

 

“Part of what motivates sick people to do this kind of thing is some twisted notion of fame or glory, and I don’t want to be part of that for the sake of the victims and their families,” he said, “and so that other twisted minds don’t think that this is a path to fame and recognition.”