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Internal Documents Reveal How the FBI Blew Fort Hood

Nearly a year before the massacre, the bureau intercepted emails between Nidal Hasan and radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki that officials called "fairly benign." They are anything but.

| Tue Aug. 27, 2013 9:42 AM EDT
Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood gunman.

Last Thursday, as the jury in the trial of Nidal Hasan was deliberating, outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller appeared on CBS News and discussed a string of emails between the Fort Hood shooter and Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Islamic cleric with ties to the 9/11 hijackers. The FBI had intercepted the messages starting almost a year before Hasan's 2009 shooting rampage, and Mueller was asked whether "the bureau dropped the ball" by failing to act on this information. He didn't blink: "No, I think, given the context of the discussions and the situation that the agents and the analysts were looking at, they took appropriate steps."

In the wake of the Fort Hood attacks, the exchanges between Awlaki and Hasan—who was convicted of murder on Friday—were the subject of intense speculation. But the public was given little information about these messages. While officials claimed that they were "fairly benign," the FBI blocked then-Sen. Joseph Lieberman's efforts to make them public as part of a two-year congressional investigation into Fort Hood. The military judge in the Hasan case also barred the prosecutor from presenting them, saying they would cause "unfair prejudice" and "undue delay."

As it turns out, the FBI quietly released the emails in an unclassified report on the shooting, which was produced by an investigative commission headed by former FBI director William H. Webster last year. And, far from being "benign," they offer a chilling glimpse into the psyche of an Islamic radical. The report also shows how badly the FBI bungled its Hasan investigation and suggests that the Army psychiatrist's deadly rampage could have been prevented.

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Hasan first appeared on the bureau's radar in December of 2008—nearly a year before the Fort Hood massacre—when he emailed Awlaki to ask him whether serving in the US military was compatible with the Muslim faith. He also asked whether Awlaki considered those who died attacking their fellow soldiers "shaheeds," or martyrs.

At the time, Awlaki, who was killed by a US drone strike in 2011, was emerging as Al Qaeda's chief English-speaking propagandist. He was also known to have ties to several of the 9/11 hijackers, two of whom attended his mosque in San Diego.

The FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force in San Diego, which was tracking Awlaki, intercepted Hasan's December email, along with another sent in January. A search of the Pentagon's personnel database turned up a man named Nidal Hasan who was on active military duty and was listed as a "Comm Officer" at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC.

Hasan first appeared on the FBI’s radar when he emailed Anwar al-Awlaki to ask if he considered US servicemen who died attacking fellow soldiers "shaheeds," or martyrs.

Normally, when the FBI unearths this kind of raw intelligence, it issues an Intelligence Information Report (IIR), which is shared with law enforcement agencies and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. (This system was designed to prevent the kind of information bottlenecks that allowed the 9/11 plot to go undetected.) But the San Diego agents misinterpreted the "Comm Officer" label in Hasan's file to mean "communications officer" (in fact, it meant "commissioned officer") and believed that a person in this role might have access to IIRs. To avoid tipping him off, they skipped the report and sent a detailed memo requesting an investigation directly to the Washington, DC, Joint Terrorism Task Force, a multiagency team overseen by the FBI that investigates terrorism cases in the capital. The message noted that Hasan's "contact with [Awlaki] would be of concern if the writer is actually the individual identified above."

The file languished for nearly two months before it was assigned to an agent for the Defense Criminal Investigative Services, who was on the task force. According to a 2011 report on the Fort Hood shootings by the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, DCIS—a law enforcement agency within the Pentagon, which normally deals with fraud and cybercrime among military personnel and contractors—was ill-equipped to tackle a counterterrorism investigation.

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."

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