Senior federal investigators confirmed Tuesday night that since last December, the FBI monitored from 10 to 20 “communications” between suspected Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan and an overseas terror suspect known for preaching violence and expressing sympathy for Al Qaeda.
But although an FBI-led task force undertook an “assessment” of the Army psychiatrist as a result of those contacts, counter-terror officials concluded earlier this year that Hasan’s communications with the terror suspect were “protected” by “free speech” and did not warrant opening up a criminal investigation of him, the investigators said.
Still, counterterror officials were never told about one key piece of investigative information: that Hasan had purchased a high-powered semiautomatic pistol on Aug. 1, just weeks after he was transferred by the Army to Fort Hood. Such gun purchases automatically trigger a federally mandated background check.
Absent the federally collected data that Hasan was arming himself with a Belgian-made FN Herstal 5.7 pistol—a weapon that gun-control groups have portrayed as a “cop killer”—the bureau’s counterterrorism officials found there was insufficient grounds to raise additional concerns about Hassan within the government.
“From an investigative standpoint, there’s all kind of information we’d like to know,” said one senior U.S. government investigator when asked whether the federally collected gun data about Hasan’s weapons purchase might have influenced the bureau’s handling of his case.
The disclosure about the failure to share the data about Hasan’s purchase of the gun (one of two weapons he later used to kill 13 people last Thursday) is sure to be one of a host of issues that are likely to provoke public debate—and internal government reviews.
In a background briefing for reporters Tuesday night, investigators confirmed that FBI Director Bob Mueller had ordered a “red team,” set up to independently review the case, to assess how investigative information about Hasan was handled by the FBI and why more of it wasn’t shared and evaluated throughout the government.
The interest in Hasan’s prior communications have been heightened because of the reported identity of the man with whom he was in contact: Anwar al-Awlaki, an American born radical imam now living in Yemen. According to the 9/11 Commission, Awlaki had meetings with two of the 9/11 hijackers and served as imam at two mosques—one in San Diego and another in Falls Church, Virginia—where three of them worshiped. Just this week, he posted an inflammatory sermon on his Web site praising Hasan as a “hero” for killing American soldiers.
At the briefing for reporters, three senior investigators (all of whom declined to be identified by name because of the ongoing probe) refused to confirm that Awlaki was the terror suspect with whom Hasan was in contact. (They and other federal officials also did nothing to dispute published reports by The New York Times and others that Awlaki was indeed the person in question.)
But they attempted to defend the FBI’s handling of the case in the face of mounting questions. They said the communications between Hasan and the terror suspect —believed to be e-mails—appeared to be related to a research paper or master’s thesis that the Army doctor was writing. They said there was nothing that leaped out to investigators as suggesting that he was about to mount any attack. “There was no smoking gun,” one of the investigators said. Absent any “predicate” that Hasan was planning to commit a terrorist act, the bureau—under its own guidelines—is barred from opening up even a preliminary investigation.
As to Hasan’s weapons purchase, the investigators stressed that under existing federal law, there are tight restrictions imposed by Congress about sharing any such information even within the FBI. The FBI is required to assist states in conducting a background check of any gun purchaser to determine if they fall into any of a number of prohibited categories—including whether they have been convicted of a crime or have a history of mental illness. Hasan, who purchased the $1,100 pistol under his own name, was approved for the purchase he made at the Guns Galore gunshop in Killeen, Texas.
But after the check is conducted, and an individual is cleared to buy his gun, the FBI cannot retain the data or share any information about the gun purchase—even with other bureau officials charged with preventing terror attacks.
The FBI has chafed under these restrictions in the past but has failed to have them eased due to fierce resistance from the gun lobby and its supporters in Congress (as well as, in the past, in the Bush administration.)
Whether the Hasan case prompts another look at those restrictions—by the Democratic controlled Congress or the Obama Justice Department—is one question sure to be asked in the weeks ahead.
Grief After a Rampage: See NEWSWEEK's photo gallery of the tragedy at Fort Hood.