The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How the right wing got it so wrong on the ‘Pakistani mystery man’

Imran Awan.
Imran Awan. (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post)

An earlier version of this column misstated the reported purpose of home equity loans sought by Imran Awan. Awan's lawyer told the New York Times that Awan sought the loan to provide money to relatives in Pakistan to assist his father, not that the loan was meant to pay his father's medical bills. The version below has been corrected.

Steve Israel, a Democrat, represented New York in the House of Representatives from 2001-2017.

This is the story of a congressional staffer who committed a crime, and a larger crime that was committed against him. It’s a story of a fever on Capitol Hill, spiked by right-wing extremists with help from President Trump.

Last year, a congressional information-technology staffer who worked for more than a dozen Democratic members of Congress (a permissible and customary practice on Capitol Hill) was suspected of using multiple usernames and passwords to skirt House rules and purchase office items. This isn’t exactly the stuff of gripping television crime drama. But rules were broken and the staffer, along with four other House IT staffers who were relatives or friends, were denied access to the systems.

Maybe if the staffer’s name was Ed Smith, this would have been the end of a fairly uninteresting story. But the United States is in the white-knuckled grip of a xenophobic president and his base, and this congressional staffer had made one grave mistake, or at least his parents had: He was named Imran Awan. He is a Pakistani American who had access to computers in congressional offices.

To the right-wing conspiracy peddlers, the appearance of it was too tempting to be just a headline about an IT staffer. Led by the Daily Caller, they wove a conspiracy theory that belonged in a spy thriller. Awan, they suggested, might have been a mole for Pakistani intelligence services or terror cells. He was employed by liberal Democrats who might have provided the cover he needed to access and compromise highly sensitive data on Capitol Hill. (If he had worked in my office, this “highly sensitive data” would have been letters from constituents demanding stop signs in their neighborhoods.) They demanded that Awan’s Democratic employers fire him. They accused him of espionage and conspiracy to steal data and hardware. They even accused Awan’s ailing father of delivering a mysterious USB drive to Pakistani intelligence.

And what shriller amplifier of the right-wing echo chamber than Trump himself, whose tweets about Awan called him a “Pakistani mystery man.” The president went a step further in abusing his power by tweeting at his Justice Department how to investigate and what outcome he wanted.

In July 2017, Awan was arrested at Dulles International Airport boarding a plane for Pakistan. The federal government’s investigation ultimately lasted 18 months, and included forensic analysis of computer equipment and other devices and interviews with some 40 witnesses, searching for any connection that would validate the right’s cockamamie conspiracy theories.

What crime was actually uncovered? On a home-equity loan application to the Congressional Federal Credit Union, Awan stated that a property owned by his wife was her principal residence, when in reality, she was renting it to tenants. You could uncharitably call it bank fraud, but not the kind of fraud that almost brought down our economy in 2008. He was trying to enhance his chances of getting a loan to provide money to relatives in Pakistan in order to help his ailing father, who was in Virginia at the time, Awan’s lawyer told the New York Times this month.

Last week the government closed its case with a plea bargain. In the 11-page agreement, federal officials took the unusual step of sucking the oxygen out of the right wing’s hysteria on this matter. The report documented a painstaking investigation and concluded that “the Government has uncovered no evidence that [Awan] violated federal law with respect to the House computer systems.”

Awan will be sentenced on Aug. 21 for the crime of falsely submitting a loan application. The prosecutors are declining to recommend jail time.

The government’s matter-of-fact rebuke of Awan’s accusers is a somewhat happy ending to the story. Still, Awan’s good name was dragged through the muck and mire of right-wing conspiracy theorists. And isn’t that the very point? He was ruined because to some, including our president, Imran Awan’s good name sounded bad.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: The Peter Strzok fiasco wrecks the GOP’s bogus conspiracy theory

Michael Gerson: How Trump handles scandal: Conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory

E.J. Dionne Jr.: The mainstreaming of right-wing extremism