The FBI might have known nearly a year ago that Major Nidal Malik Hasan was in contact with a known advocate of violent jihad against the West, but the intelligence community is rallying to defend the bureau from any suggestion that it could have prevented the massacre at Fort Hood.
Last December, the surveillance of Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Yemeni-American cleric accused by the U.S. of having ties to al-Qaeda, revealed that he had received between 10 and 20 e-mails from Hasan. But the fact that a U.S. military officer was communicating with a Yemen-based cleric who openly supports jihadist causes did not prompt the bureau to open an investigation into Hasan's activities.
Peter Hoekstra, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, warned on Monday of "the possibility that serious issues exist with respect to the performance of U.S. intelligence agencies" in the Fort Hood case. The FBI will likely come under special scrutiny when the Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, briefs the Senate and House committees next week. "There are a lot of questions of what the FBI did and did not do," says an official familiar with the investigation, speaking on condition of anonymity. "There were red flags, and there were signs that should have raised alarms. The [intel] community did have information on this guy ... could they have acted?"
But the bureau has hit back, arguing that since the Hasan-al-Awlaki exchanges were "explainable by [Hasan's] research and nothing else derogatory was found, [investigators] concluded that Major Hasan was not involved in terrorist activities or terrorist planning." (Hasan had been conducting research into the attitudes of Muslim soldiers at war with other Muslims.)
Whether or not the FBI might have intervened depends on what, exactly, was in the e-mails between Hasan and al-Awlaki. The FBI has not released any transcripts, but officials say the exchanges were innocuous, and in no way suggested that Hasan was seeking guidance or help in planning for a terrorist attack. Says one counterterrorism official who spoke on condition of anonymity, "This wasn't Hasan saying, 'Preacher, bless me because I'm about to martyr myself.' Hasan's questions were more generic, and consistent with his stated aim, to research the attitudes of Muslim soldiers at war with fellow believers."
Besides, some officials point out, there's nothing illegal about writing to al-Awlaki: the Yemeni American is not under any kind of indictment in the U.S. But even if the exchanges were innocuous, should the fact that Hasan was a serving military officer not have set off some trip wires?
The FBI's defenders say investigators would, at any one time, have been monitoring hundreds, possibly thousands of exchanges between al-Awlaki and interlocutors in the U.S. Many of them would be disaffected young men, expressing rage against the West and support for the activities of jihadis everywhere. Then along comes this communication from a senior military officer. It's innocuous, and well within the scope of the officer's legitimate area of interest and research. Rather than raise any alarm, say intelligence officials, the communications from Hasan would have seemed "safe" and been put aside, while FBI monitors to focused on al-Awlaki's other, potentially more worrisome correspondents on these shores.
Says Juan Carlos Zarate, who was President George W. Bush's Deputy National Security Adviser for combating terrorism: "Given the cover [Hasan] used, as someone researching the effects on Muslim soldiers of operating in Muslim countries [his approaching al-Awlaki] was not wholly illegitimate. It doesn't raise the specter of dangerous or criminal activity." In those circumstances, the officials monitoring the communications between the psychiatrist and the imam might reasonably assume that Hasan was doing "legitimate research, on behalf of the U.S. military," he adds.
Intel experts say if, in fact, there's any blame to be assigned for missing danger signs, it should be focused on the military. They say that some of Hasan's flaky behavior at Walter Reed should have alerted his superior officers especially his fellow psychiatrists that something was amiss.
The FBI on Monday issued a statement, saying "there is no information to indicate [Hasan] had any co-conspirators or was part of a broader terrorist plot. The investigation to date has not identified a motive, and a number of possibilities remain under consideration."
In the statement, the bureau acknowledged that Hasan "came to the attention of the FBI in December 2008 as part of an unrelated investigation being conducted by one of our joint terrorism task forces (JTTFs). Investigators reviewed certain communications between Major Hasan and the subject of that investigation and assessed that the content of those communications was consistent with research being conducted by Major Hasan in his position as a psychiatrist at the Walter Reed Medical Center."
FBI Director Robert Mueller has ordered a review of the bureau's knowledge of Hasan, to determine if "any policies or practices should change based on what we learn," the statement says. But intel officials don't believe that what the bureau knew gave them sufficient reason to raise the alarm.