DEBORAH AMOS: Just after September 11th, disturbing documents were found on the floor of this safe house in Afghanistan.
ATTORNEY GENERAL ASHCROFT TESTIFYING BEFORE CONGRESS, 12/6/01: This is a seized Al Qaeda Training Manual.
DEBORAH AMOS: Attorney General John Ashcroft showed a similar manual In testimony to Congress.
ATTORNEY GENERAL ASHCROFT TESTIFYING BEFORE CONGRESS, 12/6/01: In this manual, Al Qaeda terrorists are now told how to use America's freedom as a weapon against us.
DEBORAH AMOS: But what Ashcroft did not point out: these manuals show Osama bin Laden's foot soldiers how easy it is to buy assault weapons in American gun stores and gun shows.
Al Qaeda and other terrorists organizations have exploited numerous loopholes in American gun laws loopholes that exist because of consistent lobbying by the powerful National Rifle Association to stop any restrictions on gun purchases. Since September 11th, critics say, the U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has chosen to side with the NRA at the expense of the war on terrorism.
Here in the rural Virginia town of Red House, one home grown militant group, five years on one of the State Department's terrorism watch lists, got around American gun laws in order to arm themselves.
They are Americans, many ex-convicts who call themselves Muslims of America, their leader is a Muslim cleric in Pakistan their self-proclaimed goal to purify Islam through violence.
Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the ATF, began monitoring this community four years ago. They asked a local gun store owner for help.
JOHN MASSERINI, OUTPOST GUN STORE OWNER: ATF approached me and showed me some pictures and asked if any of these individuals had been in the store. I said yes.
DEBORAH AMOS: The ATF suspected that members of the group were buying weapons illegally from Masserini's shop. He agreed to install a hidden camera.
With Masserini's help, the ATF had enough evidence to launch a full scale investigation. The group - Muslims of America -- were under surveillance because investigators believed they were one and the same as a militant Islamic group called Jammat Al Fuqra.
SUSAN FENGER, FORMER COLORADO GOVERNMENT INVESTIGATOR: The Fuqra is suspected of at least 17 fire-bombings and 13 homicides in this country alone.
DEBORAH AMOS: Susan Fenger led an investigation of the group in Colorado after weapons and dangerous explosives were found there in a storage locker in 1989.
Fenger gave us this recruitment video seized as evidence, featuring the group's leader, Sheikh Mubarik Jilani.
SHEIKH MUBARIK JILANI SPEAKING ON TAPE: We have already established under the auspices of Muslims of America, Incorporated … the organization is called Soldiers of Allah.
DEBORAH AMOS: Fenger says there are numerous links between Al Fuqra and al Qaeda. The shoe bomber, Richard Reid was trained at the Al Fuqra compound in Pakistan. In the United States, members of Al Fuqra have been convicted in firebombings, murders, fraud and gun smuggling. And they have set up paramilitary training camps at many of their compounds scattered around the United States.
SHEIKH MUBARIK JILANI SPEAKING ON TAPE: You are most welcome to join one of our, you know, advanced training courses in Islamic Military Warfare.
For which, you can get in touch with anybody in the Muslims of America in the United States, Canada, or anywhere, or in Pakistan.
SUSAN FENGER: Wherever you find Al Fuqra, you find weapons. And we're not talking hunting weapons. We're talking assault weapons, as well as explosives.
DEBORAH AMOS: Back in Virginia, Masserini's hidden camera taped members of Muslims of America dodging American gun laws.
This man Bilal Ben Benu is shopping for an SKS assault rifle, a 9 mm pistol, and AK-47 ammunition. Ben Benu is a convicted drug felon which should have prevented him from buying a gun. But he got around the law.
When he filled out the required federal background check form - he lied so the background check came up clean.
Vincente Pierre, another member of the group, is also a felon. He did something different to get around the gun laws. Because he would have failed the criminal background check, he had his wife buy a 9 mm hand gun for him. This is known as a straw purchase - one person spots the weapon, another buys it.
JOHN MASSERINI, OUTPOST GUN STORE, OWNER: If an individual walks in and sees something that he wants and he walks out and then somebody else comes in two days later and purchases it, I don't know it. And there's nothing I can do.
DEBORAH AMOS: On September 20, 2001, Ben Benu, Vincente Pierre and his wife were arrested for illegally buying guns. The arrests were part of the post September 11th sweep of terrorism suspects.
GERALD NUNZIATO, RETIRED ATF AGENT: We have a major problem in this country with terrorism and firearms. Terrorists could come to this country and obtain firearms so easy ...
We sell anything in this country. Its very easy to obtain weapons here from guns shows, pawn shops, straw purchases, relatives, through newspaper ads.
DEBORAH AMOS: After 9-11, Attorney General Ashcroft ordered law enforcement officials to fight terrorism by any means necessary.
ATTORNEY GENERAL JOHN ASHCROFT, TESTIFYING BEFORE CONGRESS, 9/24/01: It's our position at the Justice Department and the position of this administration that we need to unleash every possible tool in the fight against terrorism and to do so promptly.
DEBORAH AMOS: Ashcroft ordered that all government lists including voter registration, immigration and driver's license lists be checked for links to terrorists. But there was one list Ashcroft did not want used - the gun purchasers background check.
Every person who buys a gun from a dealer must pass an instant criminal background check. It's called the National Instant Criminal Background check system or NICS. The records of those checks are kept by the FBI. After September 11th, the ATF wanted to review those records to see if any suspected terrorists had bought guns.
MATHEW NOSANCHUK, FORMER JUSTICE DEPT. AND VIOLENCE POLICY CENTER: They wanted to know whether any of them had slipped through the system. The Department of Justice stepped in and stopped the FBI in their tracks. The Department of Justice said no, you can't do that. You can't use the records of approved gun purchasers in connection with a criminal investigation.
DEBORAH AMOS: Attorney General John Ashcroft told the FBI to stop checking the NICS list.
That mirrors the position of the National Rifle Association, which insists that the data collected when people buy guns is an invasion of privacy.
REP. BOB BARR (R-GA): Should police have unfettered access to check the records of everybody who lawfully purchases a fire arm, absolutely not… that is a private transaction and I think they're entitled to not have the government know that they have purchased, lawfully purchased and maintain a firearm.
DEBORAH AMOS: Ashcroft agrees. The result - while he asked Congress to change other laws as part of the war on terrorism, the gun laws were untouchable.
SENATOR EDWARD KENNEDY, (D-MA): Potential terrorists can walk into a gun show, walk out with a gun, no questions asked. Why is the department handcuffing the FBI in its efforts to investigate gun purchases by suspected terrorists?
ATTORNEY GENERAL JOHN ASHCROFT, TESTIFYING BEFORE CONGRESS, 12/06/01: The only permissible use for the National Instant Check System is to audit the maintenance of that system. And the Department of Justice is committed to following the law in that respect.
DEBORAH AMOS: Senator Jack Reed Of Rhode Island says Ashcroft's stance is contradictory.
SENATOR JACK REED (D-RHODE ISLAND): I believe as I think most Americans that if the FBI is trying to track down a terrorist, they should have accessed all information that is available.
DEBORAH AMOS: The Attorney General is an American and he doesn't agree with you.
SENATOR JACK REED: I can't understand his logic, frankly, when you have him talking about the unremitting effort that they are waging against terrorism and then there's this blind spot about the NRA and guns and lists of people who buy them.
DEBORAH AMOS: And when Ashcroft was making his argument to congress, he left out some key information.
ATTORNEY GENERAL JOHN ASHCROFT, TESTIFYING BEFORE CONGRESS, 12/6/01: It's my belief that the United States Congress specifically outlaws and bans the use of the NICS database and that's the use of approved purchase records, for weapons checks on possible terrorists or on anyone else.
DEBORAH AMOS: What the Attorney General did not tell Congress in December is revealed in this internal Justice Department memo, obtained by NOW. It turns out that Ashcroft's own Justice Department had just issued an opinion that supported the F.B.I's longtime practice of checking criminal suspects against the gun background check records.
And it said, "We see nothing in the NICS regulations that prohibits the FBI from deriving additional benefits from checking audit log records."
Ashcroft refused to follow his own Justice Department's interpretation of the law, and insisted he did not have the authority to change this law.
SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY), 12/6/01: You are certainly allowed to use the system because these people don't have the right to have a gun.
ATTORNEY GENERAL ASHCROFT: The law is as the Congress wrote it and I intend to enforce the law as it has been written and signed by the President.
CHAIRMAN: We wrote it that way because we had to it was the only way we could pass it.
SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: But if you don't run the checks, you're not going to know who should be denied.
ATTORNEY GENERAL ASHCROFT: There...I don't think.. We are ships passing in the night, or maybe I am a rowboat passing you as a ship. Whatever it is here.
SENATOR JACK REED, (D-RI): I think if the Attorney General felt that there was any confusion about authority, he could have come to us immediately, as he did on the U.S.A. Patriot Act. I mean, here's a law enforcement officer who recommending to the President very serious and very sober steps about detaining people in the United States but didn't ask to allow the FBI to look at lists that have been maintained of gun sales that may have revealed a connection with terrorists.
DEBORAH AMOS: And law enforcement officials say those background checks hold vital leads that would help catch terrorist networks.
JOE VINCE, RETIRED SPECIAL AGENT, ATF: If one of the September 11th terrorists had illegally purchased firearms, that would have been a tremendous opportunity to go in and not only arrest them with a very serious offense but also to find out other relationships that they might have had to other people and where they were acquiring these firearms. It could have really opened up a lot of doors.
DEBORAH AMOS: Doors that are closed, critics say, because of Attorney General Ashcroft's long term alliance with the NRA.
MATHEW NOSANCHUK, FORMER JUSTICE DEPT. AND VIOLENCE POLICY CENTER: For Attorney General Ashcroft to force the FBI and the ATF to conduct the post-Sept 11th investigation with one hand tied behind their backs, the same time that he's reading, you know, the immigration laws as broadly as possible ... really underscores more than anything his allegiance to the agenda of the gun lobby.
DEBORAH AMOS: Preventing law enforcement from looking at gun background checks isn't the only issue getting in the way of terrorism investigations. There are many other loopholes in gun law that allow terrorists to buy guns in this country. Retired ATF agent Gerry Nunziato says terrorists from all over the world use loopholes to buy large quantities of military style weapons here.
GERRY NUNZIATO: Eleven percent of firearms recovered worldwide that were sourced in the United States were sold by gun dealers that resided in Florida.
DEBORAH AMOS: One recent case in Florida was especially alarming.
JAY WHITE, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: There was an individual named Jorgensen who was purchasing firearms, AK-47s, Mak-90s in the Tampa area.
DEBORAH AMOS: Jorgensen bought 800 Mak-90's from several gun stores, loading them on to small planes. Us customs officials say the guns were headed to the FARC guerilla movement in Colombia, a group on the U.S. terrorism watch list. Jorgensen was caught because he illegally exported the guns, but buying 800 guns at a time is perfectly legal. There isn't much of a deterrent either for sending them overseas illegally. Jorgensen's punishment was probation.
ATF AGENT McCRARY: This is our ATF gun vault.
DEBORAH AMOS: ATF investigators told us this case is not unique.
Jorgensen was able to buy 800 of these assault weapons without raising any red flags because of two major loopholes in existing gun laws.
One loophole involves buying large quantities of guns.
GERRY NUNZIATO: Large purchases of firearms are sometimes regulated by ATF if they're hand guns. If an individual buys more than one gun from the same dealer in a five-day period, this is reported. Long guns and shotguns are exempt from it.
DEBORAH AMOS: So you can buy as many assault rifles and shot guns as you want.
GERRY NUNZIATO: So somebody buying 900 or 1000 long guns to export to this country, the only way they would know about it is when the guns were recovered, or if somebody informed ATF through a confidential source. The gun dealer would rarely call ATF and say I just sold 900 guns.
DEBORAH AMOS: A Mak-90? Tell me about this gun?
DARYL McCRARY, ATF AGENT: A Mak-90 is a sport derivative of an AK-47.
DEBORAH AMOS: Another loophole Jorgensen exploited had to do with the ban on military style weapons. The Assault Weapons Ban was intended to ban all dangerous assault weapons. But it doesn't. It allows the sale of assault weapons made before the ban. And it also allows gun makers to produce "sporting copies" - cheap knock offs -- of lethal weapons.
MCRARY: A Mak-90 could be as much as $300 or less legally, an AK-47 being fully automatic could be several thousand dollars.
DEBORAH AMOS: This gun could be used legally for sport and illegally on the street.
DEBORAH AMOS: Because this is a powerful weapon?
MCRARY: Yes. Exactly.
DEBORAH AMOS: And it is not difficult to convert this cheap knock off into a fully automatic weapon just as deadly as the banned AK-47.
These knock offs are now the favorite of terrorist groups worldwide. ATF agents told us they have recent cases involving terrorists from the Irish Republican Army, the Hezbollah and the ELN of Colombia, all buying large quantities of military style guns in the united states.
Guns in the hands of these guerrillas in Colombia could now be pointing at U.S. soldiers. The United States has more than 200 special forces soldiers stationed in Colombia.
SENATOR JACK REED (D-RI): We have to be more sensitive to individuals coming into this county, using our laws, gun show laws and other laws, to take advantage of us.
DEBORAH AMOS: Do you think if the majority of Americans understood that terrorists were able to use the loopholes in our gun laws to buy guns, do you think they would sit still for no change?
SENATOR JACK REED: Oh, no, they would demand, in fact they would ask us why we hadn't moved more promptly... What we've learned from Sept. 11th is that terrorists will likely try to use the weapons that they find here... to harm us. And that I think should send us to the point where we begin to look again at closing some of these loopholes.
DEBORAH AMOS: But Senator Jack Reed says every effort to fix the gun laws is met with resistance from the NRA, and now, from the Attorney General and the Bush administration.
SENATOR REED: There's a constant drumbeat from the NRA and their allies that ah, that try to discredit any attempts at gun control as not protecting the American public, but eroding fundamental rights. And that drumbeat is persistent and loud.
DEBORAH AMOS: A drumbeat that carries political weight. Despite the recent sniper incidents, in last week's elections, candidates fearful of losing votes did not touch the issue of gun control.
And remember the Muslims of America group? Their compound in Red House, Virginia is a forty minute drive from this gun show. Because of yet another loophole in American gun laws, there are still all kinds of military weapons you can buy here as many as you want.