Updated | 3:22 p.m.
Doing nothing to advance the heated political debate over what combination of factors might have prompted Omar Mateen to open fire inside a gay nightclub in Orlando last week, the FBI on Monday refused to release the audio or a full transcript of the gunman’s phone conversations with the police during the attack.
The FBI instead published a written timeline of the attack, which included a redacted transcript of one conversation between Mateen and a 911 operator, and a partial summary of what he said in three further calls with the Orlando Police Department crisis negotiators that lasted 28 minutes in total. The bureau argued that letting the public hear or even read the gunman’s justification for the attack in his own words risked encouraging further attacks.
Later on Monday, after that redaction was widely criticized, the FBI reversed itself, issuing an unredacted transcript revealing what had been removed: the name of the person the gunman said he dedicated his attack to, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
However, based on a previous description of Mateen’s 911 calls given by FBI Director James Comey last week, it appears that the federal investigators continued to withhold details of a second conversation Mateen had with the 911 operator, which was not referred to at all in the government’s timeline. “He made 911 calls from the club, during the attack,” Comey said last week. “He called and he hung up. He called again and spoke briefly with the dispatcher, and then he hung up, and then the dispatcher called him back again and they spoke briefly. There were three total calls.”
Also missing from the transcript and summary of the conversations was any mention of the fact that, as Comey also said last week, Mateen had expressed solidarity with the Tsarnaev brothers, who carried out the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, and Moner Mohammad Abusalha, a Floridian who carried out a suicide bombing in Syria in 2014 on behalf of al Qaeda’s representatives there, the Nusra Front. The FBI’s Boston office revealed that Mateen had referred to the Tsarnaev brothers as his “homeboys” during one of the 911 calls, despite a lack of evidence that he had ever been in contact with them.
At a news conference in Orlando on Monday morning, the assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s Tampa field office, Ron Hopper, said that while “the audio is compelling,” it would not be released as part of an effort to not glorify such attackers.
Pressed by reporters as to why the transcript released on Monday was partial and edited, Hopper seemed to refer to Mateen’s words about the other attackers. “Part of the redacting is meant to not give credence to individuals who have done terrorist attacks in the past,” he said. “We’re not going to propagate their rhetoric, their violent rhetoric, and we see no value in putting those individuals’ names back out there.”
“We’re trying to prevent future acts from happening again,” he continued, “and for cowards like this one, people like that influence them, so we are not going to continue to put their names out front.”
Later in the news conference, a reporter asked the Orlando police chief, John Mina, if some of the patrons killed at the nightclub might have been shot by his officers as they stormed the building. Mina said this was still under investigation, but appeared to acknowledge that it did occur, saying, “Those killings are on the suspect and on the suspect alone, in my mind.”
Officials also said they would not make public the content of any calls made by patrons inside the club during the attack.
Whatever the reasoning, the decision to withhold the audio and a complete transcript only seemed to encourage speculation online, and in the political arena, that the investigators might be concealing something.
House Speaker Paul Ryan and other opponents of the Obama administration suggested that the records had been censored to downplay the role of Islamist extremism, and reporters objected that the calls were clearly a public record and therefore covered by Florida law mandating transparency.
Some observers mocked the redaction:
After Attorney General Loretta Lynch said on Sunday that the transcript would be partial and redacted — to, in her words, “avoid re-victimizing those who went through this horror” — Florida’s governor, Rick Scott, said that he strongly disagreed with the administration, telling Fox News, “It sure appears that they don’t want to talk about that ISIS was involved.”
Another source of outrage, albeit a misguided one, was the fact that the printed transcript is entirely in English, although it indicates that Mateen used some Arabic words when he called 911 to dedicate his attack to the leader of the Islamic State. Bloggers on the Islamophobic fringe, like Katie Pavlich of the conservative site Townhall, raged at the FBI for translating the Arabic word Allah as “God.”
Pavlich is presumably unaware that the word Allah, derived from al-ilah, or “the god,” predates Islam. “The word Allah was in use among the people of Mecca before Mohammed announced his message to them,” the writer Christopher Howse explained in 2010. “It is found in pre-Islamic poetry and in ancient inscriptions in Arabia. It was used by Christians as their term for God long before Mohammed was born.”
Refusing to just release a complete record of all of the calls also seemed to encourage conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones who believe that the Orlando massacre, like every mass shooting and terrorist attack, was a “false flag” carried out by the government to encourage gun control.
Although it is impossible to say what was left out — and the timeline refers to more than 29 minutes of conversations that are only very briefly summarized — it is worth noting that no part of the summary released by the FBI refers to any comments Mateen might have made about hatred of the LGBT community. NPR’s Dina Temple-Raston sparked a heated backlash online when she reported on Saturday that intelligence officials and investigators were “increasingly convinced that the motive for this attack had very little or maybe even nothing to do with ISIS.”
“I think it’s too early in the investigation to say that they’ve set on a motive,” Temple-Raston added, “but I’d say they’re sort of leaning towards a particular narrative. And that narrative is that Mateen may have had some problems with his sexuality, maybe even had some latent attraction to men, and he lashed out at the gay community as a result.”
Here is the complete FBI account of Mateen’s conversations with the police during the attack in the early hours of June 12:
The following is based on Orlando Police Department (OPD) radio communication (times are approximate):
2:02 a.m.: OPD call transmitted multiple shots fired at Pulse nightclub.
2:04 a.m.: Additional OPD officers arrived on scene.
2:08 a.m.: Officers from various law enforcement agencies made entrance to Pulse and engaged the shooter.
2:18 a.m.: OPD S.W.A.T. (Special Weapons & Tactics) initiated a full call-out.
2:35 a.m.: Shooter contacted a 911 operator from inside Pulse. The call lasted approximately 50 seconds, the details of which are set out below:
Orlando Police Dispatcher (OD)
OD: Emergency 911, this is being recorded.
OM: In the name of God the Merciful, the beneficial [in Arabic]
OM: Praise be to God, and prayers as well as peace be upon the prophet of God [in Arabic]. I let you know, I’m in Orlando and I did the shootings.
OD: What’s your name?
OM: My name is I pledge of allegiance to [omitted].
OD: Ok, What’s your name?
OM: I pledge allegiance to [omitted] may God protect him [in Arabic], on behalf of [omitted].
OD: Alright, where are you at?
OM: In Orlando.
OD: Where in Orlando?
[End of call.]
(Shortly thereafter, the shooter engaged in three conversations with OPD’s Crisis Negotiation Team.)
2:48 a.m.: First crisis negotiation call occurred lasting approximately nine minutes.
3:03 a.m.: Second crisis negotiation call occurred lasting approximately 16 minutes.
3:24 a.m.: Third crisis negotiation call occurred lasting approximately three minutes.
In these calls, the shooter, who identified himself as an Islamic soldier, told the crisis negotiator that he was the person who pledged his allegiance to [omitted], and told the negotiator to tell America to stop bombing Syria and Iraq and that is why he was “out here right now.” When the crisis negotiator asked the shooter what he had done, the shooter stated, “No, you already know what I did.” The shooter continued, stating, “There is some vehicle outside that has some bombs, just to let you know. You people are gonna get it, and I’m gonna ignite it if they try to do anything stupid.” Later in the call with the crisis negotiator, the shooter stated that he had a vest, and further described it as the kind they “used in France.” The shooter later stated, “In the next few days, you’re going to see more of this type of action going on.” The shooter hung up and multiple attempts to get in touch with him were unsuccessful.