A US citizen linked to Al Qaeda who is being targeted for extra-judicial killing by the CIA lunched at the Pentagon several months after the 9/11 attacks, news sources confirmed Wednesday.
Anwar al-Awlaki, a Muslim cleric born in New Mexico who is now believed to be in Yemen, was invited to have lunch at the Pentagon shortly after 9/11 as part of the military's outreach effort to Muslims, officials confirmed to NBC News.
According to the officials, al-Awlaki was invited as part of a Pentagon outreach program to convince influential Muslims that the war in Afghanistan was aimed at al-Qaida, not Muslims.
The FBI obtained the information during its investigation into the Fort Hood shooting rampage last November and alleged gunman Nidal Hasan's contact with Awlaki.
According to officials, the information came during an FBI interview with a female lawyer who worked in the Defense Department's general counsel's office.
"It's clear at the time (when the Pentagon was reaching out to Muslims) that no one here knew of any terrorist ties Awlaki may have had," an unnamed "senior Pentagon official" told NBC.
But the FBI evidently did know. NBC News reports that al-Awlaki was actually interviewed three times by the FBI shortly after the 9/11 attacks, as he had been in contact with three of the alleged hijackers. Fox News reports that three were Nawaf al-Hazmi, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Hani Hanjour, all of whom were aboard Flight 77.
But at the time the Pentagon saw al-Awlaki as "an 'up and coming' member of the [moderate] Islamic community. After ... vetting, [Awlaki] was invited to and attended a luncheon at the Pentagon in the secretary of the Army's Office of [General] Counsel," according to documents obtained by Fox.
Al-Awlaki has been linked to no less than three recent terrorist plots or attacks on US soil. His name first rose to prominence in the US last year, when it was alleged that accused Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan emailed the cleric.
According to Fox News, which first reported on al-Awlaki's Pentagon lunch, al-Awlaki "met with the Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in Yemen and was the middle-man between the young Nigerian and the bombmaker. Awlaki was also said to inspire would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad."
"The Pentagon has offered no explanation of how a man, now on the CIA kills or capture list, ended up at a special lunch for Muslim outreach," Fox News noted.
Awlaki is at the center of a lawsuit challenging the US's "targeted assassinations" program. Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights have said the program is blatantly unconstitutional, particularly when it is applied to a US citizen as is the case with al-Awlaki.
"A program that authorizes killing U.S. citizens, without judicial oversight, due process or disclosed standards is unconstitutional, unlawful and un-American,"� ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said in a statement.
In defending against that lawsuit, the Obama administration argued last month that revealing any information about the targeted killings program would reveal "state secrets" -- an argument that many critics took to mean that the Obama administration is asserting the right to kill US citizens without any sort of court oversight.
The administration's argument means that "not only does the President have the right to sentence Americans to death with no due process or charges of any kind, but his decisions as to who will be killed and why he wants them dead are 'state secrets,' and thus no court may adjudicate their legality," Salon writer Glenn Greenwald wrote.