Monday, January 28, 2008

 

Troubling Questions

Claudia Rosett has proven herself as one of the most disciplined and tenacious investigative reporters working today. She applies her skills to maximum effect in a recent piece in National Review Online, where she digs into the recent controversy over the firing of Pentagon Analyst Stephen Coughlin. She began to unravel the mystery by asking, Who is Hesham Islam?

Earlier reports allege that Islam, a native Arabic speaker and Muslim with a high visibility role in outreach to Islamic groups, along with highly influential contacts within the Pentagon, served as catalyst for Coughlin’s dismissal.

Bill Gertz of the Washington Times reported on the controversy, which was also well-covered by MILBLOGS, such as Chaotic Synaptic Activity, Cop the Truth, CDR Salamander, and Blackfive, as well as Hot Air and Andrew Bostom.

Here’s what Rosett presents as background on Islam:

Hesham Islam is a native Arabic speaker, a Muslim, born in 1959 in Cairo and schooled in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. In 1980 he immigrated to the U.S. From 1985-2005 he served in the U.S. Navy, rising to the mid-level officer rank of commander. At some point after former defense-industry executive Gordon England joined the Bush administration as secretary of the Navy, in 2001, Islam went to work on his staff. In 2005, when England, after a stint in Homeland Security took over from Paul Wolfowitz in the Defense Department’s number two slot of deputy secretary, Islam came with him.
In England’s office, Islam’s official title is special assistant for international affairs. In that capacity he pops up as a man-about-town in Washington, making the rounds of embassies. But Islam also works as England’s point man for Pentagon outreach programs to Muslim groups. These include organizations such as the Islamic Society of North America, or ISNA, with whom Islam and England have forged ties — attending ISNA conventions, and hosting ISNA delegations at Pentagon events, and in England’s office.

For some critics, what’s already been known about Islam should cause concern, such as Stephen Emerson, who describes Islam as “an Islamist with a pro-Muslim Brotherhood bent who has brought in groups to the Pentagon who have been unindicted co-conspirators.”

And how about Coughlin? Rosett reports that Coughlin is an analyst determined to highlight a covert threat from within:

In a thesis accepted last year by the National Defense Intelligence College, entitled “To Our Great Detriment: Ignoring What Extremists Say About Jihad,” Coughlin came up with heavily documented findings that Islamic law, to a dangerous extent, supports the global spread of Islamic extremism, through both violent and non-violent means. In presentations to the military, based in part on court documents connected to the case of the Holy Land Foundation, Coughlin warned of Muslim Brotherhood plans to subvert the U.S. system via front groups, and “destroy western civilization from within.”
And then, Coughlin got the shove. Earlier this month, he was told that his contract with the Joint Chiefs of Staff will not be renewed when it expires in March. Why? According to Bill Gertz of the Washington Times, who on Jan. 4 broke the story of Coughlin’s ouster, Coughlin ran afoul of a Pentagon “key aide” named Hesham Islam. Attributing his information to unnamed “officials,” Gertz, who in a series of subsequent articles has stood by his story, alleged that Hesham Islam at a Pentagon meeting late last year sought to have Coughlin soften his views, and called him a “Christian zealot or extremist ‘with a pen’” — or words to that effect.

Rosett digs deeper, and finds some rather dubious credentials and “experiences” in Islam’s biography, beyond what has been highlighted publicly.

What Rosett has uncovered strongly suggests a possibility that Islam has invented at least portions of his resume. That in turn suggests that Islam may not be who he claims to be, and seriously calls into question his motivations and the intent of his actions.
First, there’s the possibly imagined Israeli “bombing of Cairo”:

But this Pentagon-endorsed profile raises more questions than it answers. It begins: “If Hesham Islam’s life story was translated into a screenplay — and it’s got all the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster — the director would be hard-pressed to come up with a more compelling chain of events landing him as a top adviser to the deputy defense secretary.”
As told by Islam to the reporter, “The movie would open with Islam as a young boy growing up in Cairo, Egypt, huddling in terror as Israeli bombs came raining down, demolishing much of the building around him and his family.”
There’s one problem with this scene. As far as I have been able to discover, Israel during Hesham Islam’s entire lifetime has never bombed Cairo. Asked to explain this, the Pentagon spokesman duly conferred with Islam, and relayed to me by phone that Islam says this building-wrecking bombing raid took place during the 1967 Six-Day War. But as for details that might substantiate the when and where in Cairo of this graphic scene, Islam “Doesn’t remember. He was seven years old.”

Then, there’s close proximity between Islam’s father and Saddam Hussein, and a fabulous adventure when Islam survived the sinking of an Iraqi cargo ship by Iranians:

That family move to Iraq came as Saddam Hussein was consolidating his Baathist rule, though neither the Pentagon profile nor Hesham Islam’s Pentagon biography any makes mention of that context. In answer to questions, the Pentagon spokesman says Islam’s father was invited to Iraq by Saddam Hussein, but the spokesman doesn’t know when: “It was in 1971-1973 time frame.” Surely with Pentagon background checks, more exact information would be easily available? “It’s available,” says the spokesman, but “I don’t have his C.V. kind of thing.”
The profile goes on to describe young Hesham Islam as a “merchant mariner adrift for three days in the Arabian Sea after an Iranian torpedo sunk his 16,000-ton cargo ship, drowning all but Islam and four of his crewmates.”

Rosett finds no evidence confirming Islam’s dramatic account:

As for records of any incident fitting the generic description of a 16,000-ton cargo ship, under any flag, torpedoed by the Iranians and sunk in the Arabian Sea before Islam immigrated to the U.S. sometime in 1980 (the Pentagon spokesman can’t or won’t say exactly when in 1980), after searching news archives, shipping records, and consulting a number of naval historians, I have yet to come across anything that corroborates Islam’s Iranian-torpedo-in-the-Arabian-Sea story. There were ships sunk by the Iranians in 1980, as the Iran-Iraq war broke out — but that was happening in the Gulf, around the Shatt-al-Arab, on the other side of the Straits of Hormuz, hundreds of miles from the Arabian Sea.
It is of course possible that this torpedoing, ship sinking, and rescue took place exactly as described in the Defense profile. But having showcased the scene for public consumption, why won’t Gordon England’s office provide basic factual information that could confirm this story? Does Hesham Islam not remember that, either? Does no one at Defense have it on file?

Then, there’s a 5 year gap in his record, when Islam immigrated to the US, got married to a pen pal, and in 1985 joined the Navy as an electronics technician.

No cause for alarm? Perhaps, perhaps. But then there’s Islam’s choice of topics for a Master’s Thesis while studying at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA:

For this degree, Islam wrote a 139-page thesis about the Middle East, entitled “Roots of Regional Ambition.” In it, he devoted dozens of pages to lambasting Israel, and the influence of American Jews on U.S. politics. He deplored “Israeli activities which have detrimentally affected U.S. objectives but which have continued with impunity.” He argued that U.S. support for Israel “has negatively affected the attainment of U.S. objectives in the Middle East.” He blamed the influence of American Jews on U.S. policy for a host of ills, ranging from Arab “retaliation” against Americans, to jobs lost overseas, to hampering sales of “defensive arms to friendly Arab states.”

Based on reactions from other MILBLOGGERS, I know many are questioning whether Islam’s alleged role in getting Coughlin sacked. Whether or not those allegations are true, Islam’s biography – and questions raised by Rosett – raise some troubling questions.

What kind of a clearance did Islam get for this work in the Navy and for the Pentagon? How thoroughly were his foreign contacts vetted? Weren’t the incidents described in his public biography investigated? I would certainly think so, as a high level clearance for a foreign born subject would require close scrutiny.

Rosett’s research certainly suggests that Islam may not have been entirely truthful in dealing with military and government officials, who trust him implicitly, and who have assigned him to areas both very sensitive and vital to national security.

Why isn’t this setting off alarm bells?

(Via Powerline from last week.)

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