In the aftermath of the terrorist attack conducted by Army Major Nidal Hasan at Fort Hood in November 2009, news surfaced that Hasan had conducted correspondence by e-mail with Anwar al-Awlaki, the American leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. At the time, the FBI insisted that the e-mail contacts were “fairly benign.” As late as last week, FBI Director Robert Mueller insisted that investigators “took appropriate steps” in dealing with the correspondence. According to an internal report obtained by Mother Jones, though, the correspondence alarmed investigators enough to demand action — which the Defense Department declined out of concern for its political sensitivity.
It’s impossible to excerpt this and do justice to it, so be sure to follow the link to Mother Jones and read it all. A few paragraphs stand out, though:
Meanwhile, Hasan kept writing Awlaki. Between January and May 2009, he sent the radical cleric more than a dozen emails, and received two relatively benign responses. In one message, ostensibly about Palestinians firing unguided rockets into Israel, Hasan asked Awlaki whether “indiscriminately killing civilians” was acceptable. Two days later, he sent another message answering his own question: “Hamas and the Muslims hate to hurt the innocent but they have no choice if their going to have a chance to survive, flourish, and deter the zionist enemy. The recompense for an evil is an evil.” (Hasan’s emails contained a number of typos.)
The San Diego field office intercepted these missives, too. But the database where the FBI stored intercepted emails didn’t automatically link messages from the same sender, so the staff didn’t realize that Hasan’s early 2009 emails were from the person who had set off alarms the previous December. Meanwhile, the Washington-based DCIS agent assigned to investigate Hasan put off his inquiry for another 90 days, the maximum allowed under joint task force rules, before conducting a cursory investigation. Over the course of four hours on May 27, 2009, he ran Hasan’s name through several databases to see if the psychiatrist had been targeted in previous counterterrorism probes. He also reviewed Hasan’s Pentagon personnel file. Hasan’s officer evaluations were mostly positive, and the chair of psychiatry at Walter Reed had written that Hasan’s research on Islamic beliefs regarding military service had “extraordinary potential to inform national policy and military strategy.”
After the string of e-mails continued, other agents caught wind of Hasan’s activities. However, in an outcome that has echoes of 9/11, few people seemed to be talking with each other, and even fewer taking it seriously. One agent came in at the tail end and even without the context of the earlier messages quickly came to the conclusion that this needed more attention than it was getting.
An FBI agent in the San Diego field office, whom the Webster report identifies as “SD-Agent,” reviewed this email, but again failed to link it to the Hasan case. He ultimately determined it was “Not a Product of Interest.” On June 11, the same agent read the Washington task force’s report on the Hasan investigation. While he still didn’t connect the dots with the message he read, the agent was dismayed that the investigation hadn’t gone deeper and considered the justification for not interviewing Hasan “weak excuses.” His colleagues in San Diego agreed. In fact, according to the Webster Commission, one of them believed Hasan must have been a confidential source—why else would the Washington office conduct such a perfunctory investigation?
At this point, SD-Agent asked the DCIS investigator on his team to press his Washington counterpart to dig deeper, after which the San Diego DCIS agent sent Washington an email asking why the investigation was so “slim.” In a follow-up phone call, he explained that San Diego would have at least interviewed Hasan. According to the Webster Commission, the Washington DCIS agent dismissed these concerns, saying the Washington field office “doesn’t go out and interview every Muslim guy who visits extremist websites” and stressing that the subject was “politically sensitive.” (The Webster report notes that the quotes are not verbatim).
You know what else was “politically sensitive”? These e-mails that clearly pointed out the failures to connect the dots on Hasan. The FBI initially resisted releasing their findings publicly, but eventually published the Webster Commission report on their website in July of last year … without apparently letting anyone know about it. Kudos to Mother Jones’ Mariah Blake for publicizing it.
This now makes the question about the Obama administration’s classification of the Fort Hood massacre even more urgent. There is no doubt at all of the motive behind Hasan’s actions — it was clearly intended as a terrorist attack. Why won’t the White House acknowledge it? Perhaps that, too, is “politically sensitive.”