Within hours, Obama ordered intelligence review of Fort Hood shootings

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 12, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Within 24 hours of last week's killing spree at Fort Hood, Texas, President Barack Obama had ordered a high-level review of how U.S. officials handled information related to the alleged gunman, Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan.

The speed with which Obama ordered the review — on the day after the shooting and before news organizations began what has become an almost daily drumbeat of revelations about evidence of Hasan's radical leanings and questionable contacts — suggests that top-level administration officials knew within hours that Hasan was no ordinary soldier whose shooting spree came as a complete surprise.

The White House released a copy of Obama's order, which was issued last Friday, on Thursday. It offered no explanation for why it had delayed publicizing the order for nearly a week or why the president had acted so quickly.

In the order, Obama directed John Brennan, his adviser on homeland security and counterterrorism, to find out what various federal agencies knew about Hasan, how they treated the information and whether they shared it with other agencies.

He also told the Defense Department, the FBI and the director of national intelligence to turn over all files on Hasan to Brennan and that he wanted a preliminary report by Nov. 30.

Hasan allegedly shot 55 people at the Army base on Nov. 5, killing 13 of them. On Thursday, the Army charged him with 13 counts of premeditated murder. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.

The news media have reported on Hasan almost daily since the shootings, revealing a series of actions that analysts say could have alerted authorities to a possible threat, especially if knowledge of them had been shared within the government and officials had connected the dots.

The failure to share intelligence was singled out as a factor that allowed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to occur. Officials had hoped that such systemic failure had been remedied in part by creating the post of a director of national intelligence to coordinate the work of different agencies.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned Thursday that leaking information about Hasan could hurt the major's prosecution. "I am afraid that it has the potential to jeopardize the criminal investigation," Gates said.

Among the possible warning signs that the media have discovered since the shootings:

  • Hasan had contact with a radical Muslim cleric who's suspected of a connection to 9-11 and thought to be an influence in other terrorist attacks.
  • Hasan may have expressed favorable views of suicide bombings. A Web site in May featured a post under the name "NidalHasan" that likened Muslim suicide bombers to solders who throw themselves on hand grenades to save their comrades. Both, the writer said, sacrifice "for a more noble cause."
  • Hasan said in 2007 that Muslim soldiers should be excused from fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq because they'd be fighting fellow Muslims, according to The Washington Post. "It's getting harder and harder for Muslims in the service to morally justify being in a military that seems constantly engaged against fellow Muslims," he said.
  • His views alarmed fellow doctors at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and they questioned as early as last year whether he was psychotic, according to National Public Radio. They expressed misgivings about his "extremist Islamic views," and he was reprimanded for telling one patient that "Islam can save your soul."

Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the senior Republican on the Homeland Security Intelligence Subcommittee, issued this statement Thursday:

"In addition to the e-mails to the imam in Yemen I have confirmed through independent sources that there were communications and wire transfers made to Pakistan. This Pakistan connection just raises more red flags about this case and demonstrates why it's important for Congress to exercise its oversight authority."

Perhaps more than most of Hasan's actions, it was the e-mail contact with Muslim cleric Anwar al Awlaki that had independent analysts and some members of Congress demanding an investigation.

"I was startled," said Philip Zelikow, who was the executive director of the bipartisan commission that investigated the 2001 terrorist attacks. "Awlaki is a 9-11 loose end. ... It should have set off some questions."

U.S. government agents knew that Hasan had exchanged 10 to 20 e-mails starting last December with Awlaki, a New Mexico-born Muslim cleric who grew up in Yemen and was linked in the 9-11 commission's final report to at least two of the 2001 hijackers.

Awlaki's response was limited — only two of Hasan's messages were returned — and didn't encourage violence. In fact, one of them advised Hasan not to violate any laws, according to an official at the House Intelligence Committee, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorize to talk about the investigation.

"I suspect this imam was worried this was a sting operation," the official said. "He used guarded terms."

Lacking any clear threatening language, officials didn't pursue an investigation.

The FBI issued a news release Wednesday that said in part that investigators had "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.

"Because the content of the communications was explainable by his research and nothing else derogatory was found, the JTTF (Joint Terrorism Task Force) concluded that Major Hasan was not involved in terrorist activities or terrorist planning. Other communications that the FBI was aware of were similar to the ones reviewed by the JTTF."

The news release didn't identify the subject of the Joint Terrorism Task Force investigation but it appeared to be Awlaki, because the communications cited began in December, when Hasan's e-mails to Awlaki began.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., said that any contact with Awlaki should have set off alarms. He urged a congressional investigation before the White House revealed that it would conduct one. The Senate Homeland Security Committee plans its own investigation.

Awlaki was an imam at mosques in San Diego and Falls Church, Va., that some of the 9-11 hijackers attended. He was questioned but never charged in connection with those attacks.

Hasan attended the Virginia mosque occasionally in 2001 when he was visiting relatives nearby, though mosque officials said that Awlaki didn't offer the inflammatory talk then that he embraced later. The mosque has since repudiated Awlaki.

Beyond any suspected connection to the 9-11 attacks, Awlaki is thought to have influenced other terrorists or would-be terrorists, including five men who were convicted of plotting to attack soldiers at Fort Dix, N.J.

Awlaki has praised Hasan's alleged actions at Fort Hood — presuming him guilty — and called American Muslims traitors for condemning the violent rampage.

Obama said the White House review wouldn't conflict with the criminal investigation at Fort Hood or the military's prosecution of Hasan.

(Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this article.)

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