WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two Texas politicians made public details of an investigation into a terrorism suspect while it was still in progress, potentially jeopardizing the inquiry, three sources familiar with the matter said on Friday.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick released statements on Thursday with details about the case contained in documents that were still under court seal, the sources said.
Abbott was briefed on the case by the Texas Department of Public Safety, but was not informed that it was under seal, said Abbott’s spokesman, John Wittman. The department, in an emailed statement, said it “does not discuss matters related to ongoing investigations.”
Patrick declined to comment.
The statements from the two Texas Republicans concerned the arrest of Omar Faraj Saeed al-Hardan, 24, an Iraqi refugee who is accused of providing material support to Islamic State overseas.
Abbott provided his statement in response to a later inquiry from a reporter, Wittman said.
The U.S. Department of Justice on Thursday released a statement about two hours after Abbott’s statement was released.
In his statement, Abbott urged Democratic President Barack Obama to halt the resettlement program of Syrian refugees so they can all be vetted to ensure they “do not compromise the safety of Americans and Texans.”
Republicans widely oppose Obama’s plan to allow 10,000 Syrian refugees into the country, arguing that they pose a security risk to the United States. The Obama administration has rejected that assertion.
Hardan, who appeared in court on Friday, entered the United States in November 2009 and lived in Houston, according to a court document.
Other Republican politicians also seized on Hardan’s refugee status, as well as another Iraqi refugee who was arrested on Thursday in Sacramento, California, and who U.S. prosecutors publicly accused of supporting a foreign terrorist group, to renew opposition to Obama’s refugee plan.
At a campaign stop in Iowa on Thursday, presidential candidate and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas called for a “retroactive assessment” of refugees coming to the United States from “high risk” countries.
The sources familiar with the probe said Abbott and Patrick’s comments on Thursday forced federal authorities to wrap up their inquiries and rush out public statements and court papers on the case earlier than planned.
Texas Democratic Party Deputy Executive Director Manny Garcia said Abbott and Patrick’s utmost concern ought to be the security of Texas families, “not how to best score cheap political points.”
The clerk of U.S. District Court in the Southern District of Texas said Hardan’s indictment was only formally unsealed on Friday morning. Hardan was in custody at the time of Abbott’s statement, but interviews of potential witnesses were still being conducted, the sources said.
In California on Thursday, the U.S. Justice Department unveiled charges against Sacramento resident Aws Mohammed Younis al-Jayab, 23, an Iraqi refugee. He was accused of traveling overseas to fight alongside terrorist organizations and lying to U.S. authorities about it.
Jayab made his initial appearance in federal court in Sacramento on Friday, before U.S. Magistrate Carolyn Delaney, and was held without bail pending a preliminary hearing on Jan. 22.
After the hearing, public defender Benjamin Galloway said his client posed no threat to the United States. “Reports in the last 24 hours have grossly mischaracterized the nature of this case,” he said.
Jayab’s brother, Samer Mohammed al-Jayab, 19, was also arrested in Sacramento on Thursday in an unrelated case from Wisconsin. He also appeared on Friday in court before Carolyn Delaney, on a charge of interstate transportation of goods worth more than $5,000.
Aws Mohammed Younis al-Jayab and Hardan communicated with each other in 2013, said sources familiar with the inquiry.
The sources said Hardan is known as “Individual I” in Jayab’s court complaint. It identifies Individual I as a Texas resident with whom Jayab corresponded in April and May of 2013. Jayab allegedly also mentored Individual I, giving him advice on weapons, strategy, and his apparent desire to travel to Syria to join militants there.
Jayab told Individual I he got started in Iraq with a Kurdish militant group called Ansar al-Islam, led by an emir named Mullah Krikar, when he was “a little over 16 years old.”
In November 2013, Jayab flew to Turkey to rejoin Ansar al-Islam, according to the complaint, but quickly grew disillusioned by the violent clashes between it and other extremist groups in Syria, including Islamic State.
“Brother, this is the blood of Muslims shed at the hands of the State,” he wrote a friend shortly before leaving to return to the United States, the complaint said.
Jayab and Hardan’s relatively brief time in the United States and Jayab’s longstanding involvement with Ansar al-Islam distinguish them from scores of other defendants who were allegedly radicalized by militant groups in Syria, such as Islamic State, after living for years in the United States.
More than 75 U.S. residents allegedly radicalized by Muslim militants have been arrested since 2014.
Hardan, who was granted legal permanent residency status in the United States in 2011, did not enter a plea when he appeared in court on Friday. He is charged with aiding Islamic State.
“He was prepared to take whatever action on his own behalf to assist the organization,” Kenneth Magidson, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas, said after the hearing.
Wearing glasses and a gray plaid shirt, Hardan told the judge that he made it through 11th grade at a school in Jordan. He said he was married and had one child.
He also faces two charges about providing false information to U.S. officials concerning his ties to Islamic State and being provided weapons training, the complaint said.
Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Kristen Hays in Houston and Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento.; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Andrew Hay, James Dalgleish, Ross Colvin and Leslie Adler