In deciding not to participate in research that may be used to harm others, Google's employees are like pacifists in World War II.
It is too soon to say much about the horrific mass murder in Orlando. But I cannot resist saying something, so I will ask some genuine questions. The mass murderer – I will not repeat his name, but simply refer to him as MM – apparently was briefly investigated twice by the FBI, but the Bureau concluded there was insufficient information to justify a continuing investigation:
FBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Ronald Hopper said agents questioned him two times in 2013 after he allegedly invoked ties to terrorists during a dispute with co-workers.
“We were unable to verify the substance of his comments and the investigation was closed,” Hopper said.
The following year, agents talked to him again about his contact with suicide bomber Moner Mohammad Abusalha, a Floridian who joined a branch of Al Qaeda and blew himself up in a truck packed with explosives in Syria in 2014.
Hopper said agents “determined the contact was minimal and did not constitute a substantive relationship.”
The report about the 2013 questioning is ambiguous. Does it mean that the FBI was unable to verify that MM actually had ties to terrorists or that he had made the statements? The more likely interpretation is the former one. Let’s assume that the FBI was correct in reaching this conclusion.
But now consider the questioning in 2014. The murderer had contact with a member of Al Qaeda who blew himself up in Syria. This time the Bureau concluded that the contact was “minimal” and “did not constitute a substantive relationship.” Again, let’s assume they were right.
The problem is that the second questioning, even if the contact was limited, served to confirm the first questioning. It should have now been clear that MM did have contacts with terrorists. Even if one did not reach that conclusion, there were now two pieces of evidence against him that should have been combined.
Should this information had led to the Bureau to continue investigating MM? That is hard to say. It is possible that, given the limited resources that the Bureau has and the large number of more significant leads, this information simply did not warrant a continuing investigation. But if so, this ought to be explained. Is it that the Bureau is not providing sufficient resources into terrorism investigations, based on the idea that terrorism is not an especially serious risk or concerns about offending Muslims based on political correctness? Or is based on less controversial premises. Hopefully, these matters will be clarified in the wake of this tragedy.
Update: The New York Times fails to connect the dots. It has some additional information about the initial investigation of MM, but does not mention the 2014 interview, which is the key one.
Further Update: FBI Director James Comey says the following:
The FBI had kept confidential sources connected to the killer and tracked him since opening the investigation in 2013. According to one source, Comey said, Mateen had mentioned the videos of the extremist Islamic preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, who was linked to al-Qaida.
But the source told the FBI that when Mateen later got married, had a child, and became employed, he was no longer concerned about his allusions to radical Islam.
Ultimately, the FBI determined that there were ” no ties of any consequence” between Mateen and the suicide bomber, Moner Abusalha. On Sunday morning, however, Mateen called 911 during his rampage and told the dispatcher that Abusalha had partly inspired him to carry out the attack on Pulse nightclub.
This seems problematic. Relying on one source, the FBI ignored that MM actually had met the suicide bomber. But they chose to discount it. Even more problematic: James Comey announced that nothing in the file leads him to believe that the FBI did anything wrong.
It would be good have some outside investigation of this matter, instead of the head of an agency once again telling us, “We did nothing wrong.”