Facebook Twitter Tumblr Close Skip to main content
A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

NRA’s Baseless FBI Claim

The National Rifle Association’s chief lobbyist claimed — without offering any evidence — that the FBI was prevented from fully investigating Omar Mateen prior to his attack on an Orlando nightclub because of “the Obama administration’s political correctness.” Others, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, have made similar claims.

But FBI Director James Comey has said that the FBI over the course of two preliminary investigations in 2013 and 2014 recorded Mateen’s conversations, followed him, introduced him to confidential sources, interviewed him, “review[ed] transactional records from his communications, and search[ed] all government holdings for any possible connections.” Both investigations closed without the FBI taking any action against Mateen, because, Comey said, there was no reason at that time to suspect Mateen had terrorist ties or intentions.

“We’re also going to look hard at our own work to see whether there is something we should have done differently,” Comey said at a June 13 press briefing. “So far, the honest answer is: I don’t think so. I don’t see anything in reviewing our work that our agents should have done differently, but we’ll look at it in an open and honest way, and be transparent about it.”

In an op-ed for USA Today, Chris Cox — who heads the NRA’s lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action — explained why the NRA opposes new gun-control measures — particularly the reinstatement of a federal ban on certain military-style, semi-automatic firearms — in response to the nation’s worst mass shooting in modern history on June 12 in Orlando. Of course, Cox has a right to that opinion.

But in stating his case, Cox makes an unsubstantiated claim about the FBI’s prior contact with Mateen, a U.S.-born Muslim who pledged allegiance to the terrorist Islamic State on the night of the attack. 

Cox, June 15: The terrorist in Orlando had been investigated multiple times by the FBI. He had a government-approved security guard license with a contractor for the Department of Homeland Security. Yet his former co-workers reported violent and racist comments. Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s political correctness prevented anything from being done about it.

We asked NRA-ILA spokeswoman Amy Hunter what evidence Cox has that political correctness prevented the FBI from fully investigating Mateen. We have yet to receive a response, and we will update our article if we do.

But what we know so far does not support Cox’s claim, and in fact contradicts it.

At his June 13 press briefing, the FBI director said the agency became aware of Mateen in May 2013, when Mateen was working as a security guard at a local court house.

“He made some statements that were inflammatory and contradictory that concerned his co-workers about terrorism,” Comey said. “First, he claimed family connections to al Qaeda. He also said that he was a member of Hezbollah, which is a Shia terrorist organization that is a bitter enemy of the so-called Islamic State, ISIL. He said he hoped that law enforcement would raid his apartment and assault his wife and child so that he could martyr himself.”

Mateen’s odd behavior was reported to the FBI, and its Miami office opened a preliminary investigation. Under its Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide, the FBI must complete its preliminary investigation in six months, although it can get an extension of up to six additional months.

Comey said the first investigation in 2013 lasted 10 months, so it must have received an extension.

“Our investigation involved introducing confidential sources to him, recording conversations with him, following him, reviewing transactional records from his communications, and searching all government holdings for any possible connections, any possible derogatory information,” he said. “We then interviewed him twice. He admitted making the statements that his co-workers reported, but explained that he did it in anger because he thought his co-workers were discriminating against him and teasing him because he was Muslim. After 10 months of investigation, we closed the preliminary investigation.”

The fact that the preliminary investigation closed after 10 months indicates that the agency felt its investigation was completed. FBI rules discourage conducting preliminary investigations beyond a year, but a longer extension can be approved “by the appropriate FBIHQ operational section for ‘good cause.'”

Don Borelli, a retired FBI counterterrorism supervisor in New York, told the New York Times that the danger in keeping an investigation open without good cause is the impact that it can have on innocent people. “Imagine if you can’t get a job because you’re on some watchlist and there’s no basis for it,” Borelli told the Times.

Or imagine that someone cannot buy a gun because he or she is on a terrorist watch list and there’s no basis for it.

In fact, that is the very argument that the NRA chief lobbyist makes in response to gun-control advocates who want to give the attorney general the power to prevent people from buying guns if they are on the FBI’s Terrorist Watchlist — which, as we have written, contains about 800,000 names, including foreigners and U.S. citizens. (Mateen, a U.S. citizen, was on the watch list while under FBI investigation.) In a press release issued June 15, Cox said that “due process protections should be put in place that allow law-abiding Americans who are wrongly put on a watchlist to be removed.”

Two months after it closed its preliminary investigation of Mateen, the FBI opened a second one after discovering that he knew a Florida man who carried out a suicide mission in Syria. That was in July 2014.

“Our Miami office was investigating the Florida man who had blown himself up for the Nusra Front in Syria. Again, the Nusra Front being a group in conflict with ISIL. We learned from the investigation that the killer knew him casually from attending the same mosque in that area of Florida,” Comey said. “Our investigation turned up no ties of any consequence between the two of them.”

Comey said the FBI again interviewed Mateen “to find out whether he had any significant contacts with the suicide bomber,” and determined that he did not, and that ended the second investigation. We asked the FBI how long that investigation lasted and whether any other investigative actions were taken, besides interviewing Mateen, but it declined to comment beyond Comey’s earlier remarks.

We understand that there are legitimate questions of the FBI. On CNN’s “At This Hour,” Sen. Lindsey Graham also questioned why the FBI closed its investigation. “What do you have to do to stay on the terrorist watch list? What are the criteria to close a file? To me, I want to know the answer to that question,” he said.

Fair enough. But Cox goes too far — and Huckabee even further — in blaming political correctness without any evidence.

In a June 14 blog post, Huckabee said that “political correctness kills, and it just set a new US record.”

There is simply no evidence to support such a claim.

Clarification, June 16: This article was updated to clarify that Chris Cox is executive director of the NRA’s lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, and Amy Hunter is its spokeswoman.