What Did the Accused Fort Hood Shooter Say to a Jihadi Cleric?

The Fort Hood shooting may soon become more politically explosive. Two U.S. intelligence officials Thursday night confirmed to Declassified key details of a just-breaking ABC News report--that in emails sent to a radical Yemeni cleric, accused shooter Nidal Hasan asked when jihad is appropriate, and said "I can't wait to join you" in the afterlife.

One U.S. official, who did not want to be named discussing sensitive information, said the emails could be "a problem," but cautioned that they still needed to be viewed in context.

In background briefings for reporters and members of Congress, U.S. officials have insisted that Hasan's communications with radical imam Anwar al Awlaki were consistent with a paper he was researching as an Army psychiatrist at the WalterReedMedicalCenter. After a Joint Terrorism Task Force reviewed the emails last spring and concluded that Hasan was "not involved in terrorist activities or terrorist planning," FBI and U.S. Army officials chose not to open an investigation. But members of Congress now are demanding answers about what the FBI and Army knew—and the ABC report is likely to fuel those demands. (The ABC story also reports that, while earning a salary of $92,000 a year including his housing and food allowances, Hasan contributed $20,000 to $30,000 a year to Islamic charities.)

To respond to Congress--and to prepare for Hasan's trial--U.S. intelligence officials have been wrestling with how much of the email chain (intercepted by U.S. intelligence) can be declassified without compromising sources and methods. Given the leaks, that question may soon be academic.

Several officials, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, said that Awlaki has been a major target for American intelligence collectors since he left the United States in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, settling first in England and then Yemen. While in the United States, Awlaki had preached at a mosque in the Virginia suburbs of WashingtonD.C.; Hasan used to attend the same mosque, which reportedlyhosted his mother's funeral. Before moving to the Virginia mosque, Awlaki lived in San Diego, where investigators say he met two future 9/11 hijackers.

U.S. intelligence agencies monitored Awlaki once he settled in Yemen due to his relationship with 9/11 participants, but also because he was outspoken in favor of jihad. Even before his relationship with the accused Ft. Hood shooter came to light, Awlaki was recognized by experts on Islamic extremism (see this paper by the NEFA Foundation) as a leading radical preacher—one of the few who preached his message in English. Because of his pro-jihad postings on the Internet, Awlaki's name has regularly turned up in terrorism investigations, including court cases in Canada, Britain, and the U.S. state of Georgia, as well as in a failed plot to shoot up a military training base at Ft. Dix, New Jersey.

Given all of that, Ft.Hood investigators will want to know why Hasan's email contacts with Awlaki didn't create more alarm.To answer that question, they'll want to examine the contents of the emails. But intercepts gathered by U.S. intelligence—mainly by the ultra-secretive National Security Agency—are usually considered some of the government's most sacred secrets. Historically, the NSA has exerted enormous effort to keep them that way. Intelligence officials argue that, at the very least, making the intercepts public would remind Awlaki and people like him that they are being monitored; going public might also give potential enemies clues as to how such monitoring is conducted.

Yet because the emails are central to discovering whether U.S. authorities ignored warning signs about Hasan's behavior, the spy agencies may lose this argument. "I assume they will have to declassify material," one veteran intelligence official said. Law enforcement and intelligence agency spokespeople either declined to comment or said that it is too early to address the declassification issue.

Earlier this week, the ABC News investigative team, led by correspondent Brian Ross, also reported that Hasan had tried to get government and military lawyers to open criminal investigations of soldiers he claimed had confessed to "war crimes" during psychiatric counseling sessions. According to ABC, however, Hasan's military superiors "repeatedly ignored or rebuffed" Hasan's complaints. ABC said that one military lawyer, Col. Anthony Febbo, had told investigators that on three occasions in the weeks before the massacre, Hasan had contacted him asking whether it was permissible, under medical privacy laws or rules, for him to provide prosecutors with information on "war crimes." Febbo told ABC News he could not comment because of the ongoing investigation, and a spokesman for Army Headquarters told Newsweek that the service was not commenting on any aspect of the Hasan investigation. Spokespeople for Defense Secretary Robert Gates and James Clapper, the Pentagon's chief of intelligence, had no immediate comment.