FBI agents question Afghan rescue groups

The FBI has been reaching out to members of the veterans’ groups working to evacuate American citizens and at-risk Afghans and inquiring about their activities, in at least one case visiting a group leader at his home.

Agents have visited, emailed and called members of Task Force Pineapple and Task Force Dunkirk, two of the more prominent organizations, and other groups with a host of queries. The Bureau has asked groups about financial records, to provide manifests and make sure no federal laws are violated, according to eight group members and congressional aides familiar with the moves.

In one instance, agency officials showed up at the home of Scott Mann, founder of Task Force Pineapple, said Tim Parlatore, the group’s legal counsel. Such a visit is normal for the FBI, and the group cooperated fully, Parlatore said.

Some of the people described the outreach as nothing out of the ordinary and part of the growing public-private partnership on evacuations. “In my mind, the FBI was trying to be helpful, not intimidating,” a person familiar with the outreach said.

Others saw it differently. “Any time you get visited by the FBI or contacted by an entity like that, it’s concerning,” said one person affiliated with the groups, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic.

An FBI spokesperson declined to comment.

After Kabul fell in mid-August, dozens of volunteer groups made up of former U.S. special operators, aid workers, intelligence officers, congressional staffers and others with experience in Afghanistan cropped up to help with the evacuation effort. Some of the members launched missions to shepherd evacuees to safety, while others coordinated meetup points at the airport from afar over WhatsApp and other messaging apps.

Since the American military operation officially ended on Aug. 31, the groups have continued the evacuation work, mobilizing resources and chartering aircraft to help the remaining American citizens and at-risk Afghans escape the country.

The Biden administration has taken heat for the withdrawal and the chaotic scenes around Hamid Karzai International Airport as desperate people tried to flee the country. Critics charge that the U.S. government has not done enough to get Americans and at-risk Afghans out of the country, necessitating the rise of the ad hoc organizations.

But some of the groups and individuals working on evacuation efforts are wading into potentially muddy legal waters, for instance hiring for-profit contractors for security and escort services. Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL officer and the founder of the private military company Blackwater, offered people seats on a chartered plane out of Kabul for $6,500 per person.

The FBI initially reached out to Task Force Pineapple when it recorded a “substantial increase” in the amount of money in an associated 501(c)(3) nonprofit bank account, Parlatore said. Parlatore believes the FBI was notified when the bank filed a suspicious activity report due to the change, a normal practice, he said.

Pineapple was “happy” to cooperate with the agency, which gave them a clean bill of health, Parlatore said.

But other veterans’ groups are “not doing the right thing,” he said, adding that the FBI should scrutinize every group involved in Afghanistan rescue work.

“We’ve heard of groups that are soliciting money based on false claims about their efforts. We’ve heard of groups that are taking actions which actually undermine the legitimate efforts of others,” Parlatore said. “Not everybody is necessarily acting with criminal intent, but when you have a situation like this, unfortunately bad actors do take advantage of tragedies.”

But others said the calls were not welcome. One congressional source familiar with the calls said FBI officials intended to “spook” members; another said the calls were designed “to intimidate.”

One person familiar with the calls said the FBI doesn’t want groups offering bribes or paying the Taliban to evacuate people from Afghanistan, as those practices raise human trafficking concerns.

Further, this person said one of the groups that received a call was Glenn Beck’s Nazarene Fund. Beck has brought attention to his organization’s activities, praising Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Twitter for “act[ing] on his willingness to assist.”

The Nazarene Fund didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The Biden administration in September launched an effort to coordinate with the groups through the State Department and the Pentagon, POLITICO reported. But members said the only role of the government coalition so far has been to gather and review the groups’ manifests.

A senior State Department official told POLITICO in an interview that the effort would focus in part on deconflicting the various lists of potential evacuees that each of the groups has independently put together, and verifying each person’s status.

This work is in addition to the official State Department evacuation effort, which is coordinating with Qatari authorities to fly people out of the Kabul airport on Qatar Airways flights.

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The FBI has been reaching out to members of the veterans’ groups working to evacuate American citizens and at-risk Afghans and inquiring about their activities, in at least one case visiting a group leader at his home.

Agents have visited, emailed and called members of Task Force Pineapple and Task Force Dunkirk, two of the more prominent organizations, and other groups with a host of queries. The Bureau has asked groups about financial records, to provide manifests and make sure no federal laws are violated, according to eight group members and congressional aides familiar with the moves.

In one instance, agency officials showed up at the home of Scott Mann, founder of Task Force Pineapple, said Tim Parlatore, the group’s legal counsel. Such a visit is normal for the FBI, and the group cooperated fully, Parlatore said.

Some of the people described the outreach as nothing out of the ordinary and part of the growing public-private partnership on evacuations. “In my mind, the FBI was trying to be helpful, not intimidating,” a person familiar with the outreach said.

Others saw it differently. “Any time you get visited by the FBI or contacted by an entity like that, it’s concerning,” said one person affiliated with the groups, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic.

An FBI spokesperson declined to comment.

After Kabul fell in mid-August, dozens of volunteer groups made up of former U.S. special operators, aid workers, intelligence officers, congressional staffers and others with experience in Afghanistan cropped up to help with the evacuation effort. Some of the members launched missions to shepherd evacuees to safety, while others coordinated meetup points at the airport from afar over WhatsApp and other messaging apps.

Since the American military operation officially ended on Aug. 31, the groups have continued the evacuation work, mobilizing resources and chartering aircraft to help the remaining American citizens and at-risk Afghans escape the country.

The Biden administration has taken heat for the withdrawal and the chaotic scenes around Hamid Karzai International Airport as desperate people tried to flee the country. Critics charge that the U.S. government has not done enough to get Americans and at-risk Afghans out of the country, necessitating the rise of the ad hoc organizations.

But some of the groups and individuals working on evacuation efforts are wading into potentially muddy legal waters, for instance hiring for-profit contractors for security and escort services. Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL officer and the founder of the private military company Blackwater, offered people seats on a chartered plane out of Kabul for $6,500 per person.

The FBI initially reached out to Task Force Pineapple when it recorded a “substantial increase” in the amount of money in an associated 501(c)(3) nonprofit bank account, Parlatore said. Parlatore believes the FBI was notified when the bank filed a suspicious activity report due to the change, a normal practice, he said.

Pineapple was “happy” to cooperate with the agency, which gave them a clean bill of health, Parlatore said.

But other veterans’ groups are “not doing the right thing,” he said, adding that the FBI should scrutinize every group involved in Afghanistan rescue work.

“We’ve heard of groups that are soliciting money based on false claims about their efforts. We’ve heard of groups that are taking actions which actually undermine the legitimate efforts of others,” Parlatore said. “Not everybody is necessarily acting with criminal intent, but when you have a situation like this, unfortunately bad actors do take advantage of tragedies.”

But others said the calls were not welcome. One congressional source familiar with the calls said FBI officials intended to “spook” members; another said the calls were designed “to intimidate.”

One person familiar with the calls said the FBI doesn’t want groups offering bribes or paying the Taliban to evacuate people from Afghanistan, as those practices raise human trafficking concerns.

Further, this person said one of the groups that received a call was Glenn Beck’s Nazarene Fund. Beck has brought attention to his organization’s activities, praising Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Twitter for “act[ing] on his willingness to assist.”

The Nazarene Fund didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The Biden administration in September launched an effort to coordinate with the groups through the State Department and the Pentagon, POLITICO reported. But members said the only role of the government coalition so far has been to gather and review the groups’ manifests.

A senior State Department official told POLITICO in an interview that the effort would focus in part on deconflicting the various lists of potential evacuees that each of the groups has independently put together, and verifying each person’s status.

This work is in addition to the official State Department evacuation effort, which is coordinating with Qatari authorities to fly people out of the Kabul airport on Qatar Airways flights.

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