If there's a sensitive investigation into the flaws of crime fighters, the man the feds often call in to do the job is William H. Webster. Over the decades, the former FBI and CIA chief has headed numerous high-profile investigations into public agencies, including the Los Angeles Police Department's response to the 1992 Rodney King riots and the FBI's failure to catch Soviet and Russian mole Robert Hanssen.
But the probe into whether the FBI mishandled information about Major Nidal Malik Hasan, who is charged with killing 13 people and wounding 32 at Fort Hood in Texas, could be Webster's trickiest assignment yet. The Nov. 5 shootings have raised a host of nettlesome issues regarding Hasan and his contacts with Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical cleric in Yemen, and why the FBI decided not to raise the alarm about Hasan even though it had tracked his suspect communications. In the aftermath of the shootings, critics have raised questions not only about intelligence-sharing, but also about whether the U.S. Army psychiatrist successfully used the cloak of research as a smoke screen for his personal extremism and, perhaps, murderous intentions.
At the heart of the inquiry is the troublesome revelation that the FBI knew that Hasan, who became more religiously devout after his parents' deaths, corresponded with al-Awlaki, an American-born imam who led a northern Virginia mosque where two of the Sept. 11 hijackers worshipped. After al-Awlaki departed the U.S. in 2002, eventually ending up in Yemen, his sermons and teachings delivered in English apparently became a source of inspiration for the Fort Dix six and some of the young men who eventually left the U.S. to join al-Shabaab, the Islamist group in Somalia.
E-mail surveillance turned up as many as 20 messages between al-Awlaki and Hasan, which an FBI-headed Joint Terrorism Task Force in Washington reviewed. At the time, the task force concluded that the correspondence matched Hasan's research into the mind-set of Muslim soldiers who turn on their comrades and was insufficient evidence to launch an investigation. Separately, U.S. Army colleagues at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington have said they raised concerns with supervisors about Hasan, his statements about Islam and whether he was mentally stable or possibly even dangerous. The Army, however, did not share the information with the FBI.
It's not yet clear how wide-ranging Webster's probe will be, and opinions vary on its scope. Bill Burck, a former deputy counsel to President George W. Bush, said that while Webster's previous probes tended to looked for policy lapses or fault, this review may be more difficult. The review could go to the heart of assessing threats posed by radicalized Americans, who have rights that terrorists from outside the country do not. "That presents a very difficult set of questions about how do you balance the traditional law-enforcement approach to deal with those threats which is typically how we've dealt with those things in the past with the reality that you're dealing with people that are much harder to deter," Burck says.
The FBI has already turned over to the White House a preliminary internal review of the agency's actions before the shootings. Director Robert Mueller appointed Webster, who headed the FBI from 1978 until 1987 before becoming CIA director, to perform an open-ended, independent review of FBI policies, practices and actions preceding the incident. That will include a review of the initial findings as well as any additional issues that Webster has the discretion to take up.
In a statement, Mueller said Webster would have complete access to necessary information and resources and that Webster would coordinate with existing Department of Defense probes. "It is essential to determine whether there are improvements to our current practices or other authorities that could make us all safer in the future," he said.