National Security

Feds reverse course, release full Orlando shooter transcript

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The Justice Department quickly reversed course on Monday after coming under intense criticism for redacting references to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the transcript of a 911 call made by Orlando gunman Omar Mateen. 

Roughly four hours after releasing the censored June 12 transcript, the administration caved to pressure, releasing the text of the call in full.

{mosads}“Unfortunately, the unreleased portions of the transcript that named the terrorist organizations and leaders have caused an unnecessary distraction from the hard work that the FBI and our law enforcement partners have been doing to investigate this heinous crime,” the Justice Department and FBI said in a joint statement.

“As much of this information had been previously reported, we have re-issued the complete transcript to include these references in order to provide the highest level of transparency possible under the circumstances.”

Congressional Republicans railed against the redacted version, which Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) called “preposterous” and said was evidence of the White House misleading the public about the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.   

“The attempt to selectively edit the record reflects a broader, more serious problem: this administration’s continued effort to downplay and distract from the threat of radical Islamist extremism,” Ryan said in a statement after the Justice Department reversed course. “This is unacceptable. To defeat terrorism we have to be clear-eyed about whom we’re fighting.”

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the head of the House Homeland Security Committee, called the move “in line with the administration’s long string of denials of the threat Islamist terror poses to our homeland.”

The Justice Department said the editing was done for the victims and their families and to avoid spreading propaganda for ISIS, which has sought to inspire violence around the globe.

“What we’re not going to do is further proclaim this individual’s pledges of allegiance to terrorist groups and further his propaganda,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” 

In the transcript, Mateen twice pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and is quoted as repeatedly speaking in Arabic.

“Praise be to God, and prayers as well as peace be upon the prophet of God [Arabic]. I wanna let you know, I’m in Orlando and I did the shootings,” he told the 911 dispatcher in the roughly 50-second phone call.

Mateen also declined to give his name, saying instead that he is a supporter of ISIS.

“My name is I pledge of allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of the Islamic State,” he said.

“I pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may God protect him [Arabic], on behalf of the Islamic State.”

The Justice Department did not release portions of a separate conversation between a 911 operator and Mateen, and it condensed 28 minutes of a separate conversation with police negotiators into a seven-sentence paragraph.

The eventual release of the unredacted text was the culmination of a brief standoff between the Obama administration and its critics, who often say officials don’t use forceful enough language to describe extremists.

The White House punted responsibility for the redaction to the Justice Department, signaling lack of coordination.

“The opinion of the White House is that we should not interfere with an ongoing law enforcement investigation,” press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters.

The unforced error allowed GOP critics to repeat allegations that the administration is deceptive on national security issues and reluctant to target extremists such as ISIS.

In recent weeks, conservatives have been on the attack about supposedly hidden documents on the Iran nuclear deal and the State Department’s editing of a YouTube video from a related December 2013 press briefing.

They have also hammered the White House for its refusal to denounce “radical Islamic terrorism” by name. The White House has defended its description of ISIS extremists as “killers” and “disturbed individuals” by saying it does not want to grant legitimacy to ISIS, which aims to create a state governed by a radical form of Islam.

“President Obama’s politically correct reluctance to attribute the terrorist threat we face with radical Islam hobbles our ability to combat it by discouraging counterterrorism agents from taking radical Islam into account when evaluating potential threats,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) wrote in a Conservative Review op-ed.

“The examples of Fort Hood, Boston, San Bernardino, and Orlando demonstrate the harmful consequences of this administration’s willful blindness.” 

The FBI previously said Mateen had pledged allegiance to ISIS and al-Baghdadi during one of three phone calls with a 911 operator during the time of the attack. It was unclear why including the group’s name in a transcript of the 911 call would have further inflamed its profile.  

Additionally, the Justice Department did not refrain from publishing similar pledges of allegiance to ISIS made by the two San Bernardino, Calif., attackers in court documents in recent months. In documents filed as part of charges against a friend of the killers, the government claimed that Tashfeen Malik pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi on a Facebook page. 

Officials do not believe that Mateen’s brutal killings were coordinated by ISIS. Instead, he is believed to have become radicalized on his own, in part through internet propaganda, and carried out an attack near his home.

His pledge of allegiance to al Baghdadi is a requirement to be considered an ISIS fighter, and the group has embraced his action as their own.  

Mateen’s case highlights the troubles that law enforcement officials have when investigating potential homegrown, “lone wolf” acts of terrorism. ISIS has expanded its reach around the globe, in part through a sophisticated propaganda operation. Last month, ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani told adherents to carry out acts of violence in the U.S. and elsewhere during the holy month of Ramadan, which began the evening of June 5. 

“The smallest action you do in the heart of their land is dearer to us than the largest action by us, and more effective and more damaging to them,” he said. 

Law enforcement officials’ initial decision not to release the full transcript on Monday may be a sign of the concern about the group’s continuing ability to inspire violence.

—Updated at 6:29 p.m.

Tags ISIS Orlando nightclub shooting Paul Ryan Ted Cruz
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