The FBI refused to appear before Congress earlier this week to testify on the threats posed to American citizens by foreign fighters and other extremists who have traveled from Western countries to fight alongside the Islamic State (IS), according to multiple congressional sources familiar with the situation.
The FBI initially agreed to provide a witness for Tuesday’s House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing regarding the threats posed to the U.S. homeland by extremists affiliated with IS (also known as ISIL or ISIS), according to those apprised of the situation.
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However, the law agency changed its mind just a few days before the hearing and decided to block any official from testifying. The last minute decision was made amid reports that the FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had begun warning U.S. troops that IS fighters could be monitoring their social media accounts.
Officials from both the State Department and DHS agreed to appear at the hearing.
The FBI’s decision to stonewall Congress caused anger behind the scenes on Capitol Hill and led some to accuse it of evading its responsibility to inform American citizens about the dangers these terrorists pose.
"For the FBI to confirm its witness and then pull out only a few days before the hearing and not offer a replacement doesn’t exactly show a good faith effort on their part and it took away a lot from what we were trying to accomplish," said one congressional source familiar with what took place behind-the-scenes.
"We are repeatedly being told that there is no credible threat to the U.S. homeland, but just a few days ago the FBI issued a warning to U.S. military members that ISIL is calling for attacks against them and it is seeking individuals in America that are sympathetic to its cause to carry out these attacks," the source said. "So I think there is a very clear disconnect there."
The FBI’s decision to back out had "real implications" on the hearing and the American public’s right to know about the threats posed by foreign fighters associated with IS.
"We do our hearings in an open setting so that the American public can stay informed with regard to the threats to our national security, and more importantly, what the administration is doing to counter or defend against those threats," the source explained.
Another congressional source with knowledge of what took place said that the FBI told members and committee staff that "they had nothing to say in an unclassified setting."
The source went on to describe this excuse as "pretty ridiculous."
Multiple requests for comment and explanation from the FBI were not returned.
Lawmakers had prepared to ask FBI officials about an intelligence bulletin jointly issued by the FBI and DHS warning U.S.-based military personnel about potential threats from IS, which is believed to be monitoring their social media accounts.
The FBI’s absence was noticed several times at the hearing when lawmakers posed several questions that could not be answered by those officials in attendance.
When asked to explain the law enforcement mechanisms preventing jihadists with American passports from returning stateside, a DHS official referred questions to the FBI.
"If someone shows up at the U.S. and there’s indications that person has been a foreign fighter in Syria it would be referred to the FBI and then it would be a matter for the FBI," Tom Warrick, a deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism policy at DHS, told lawmakers during the hearing.
Lawmakers could not pose further questions on this topic and others due to the issues falling under the purview of the FBI.
After it was revealed that not a single American passport has been canceled since news that more than 100 citizens have joined IS, lawmakers had a tough time learning why.
Robert Bradtke, the State Department’s senior adviser for partner engagement on Syria foreign fighters, said that while the secretary of state has the power to cancel a person’s passport, he would only do so if asked by law enforcement.
"We would only do it in consultations with law enforcement authorities and we’ve not yet had any requests from law enforcement authorities to cancel the passports of ISIS or foreign fighters," Bradtke said.
Without a FBI official in the hearing room, it could not be discerned why no requests had been made.
When asked about pro-IS graffiti that has been spotted in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere over the past several months, Warrick again deferred to the FBI.
"Is the graffiti we’ve seen in D.C. and other cities legitimate, or do you think it’s not?" asked Rep. Ileana Ros Lehtinen (R., Fla.).
"That would actually be a question that I think would be better addressed by the FBI or domestic law enforcement. They’d be able to help you with that," Warrick responded.
While it is acceptable to keep sensitive details secret, organizations such as the FBI have a responsibility to be upfront with the American people, said one congressional source.
"Obviously a lot of what it is doing may be classified and we want to be mindful of those sensitivities because we don’t want to lead on to the bad guys what we know," the source said. "However, we believe that the American people deserve to know what is being done to protect them."