Investigators' possible missteps in Fort Hood case debated

By Carrie Johnson and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 11, 2009

As the nation mourned the 13 people shot dead last week at Fort Hood, Tex., finger-pointing in Washington intensified Tuesday about whether officials at several agencies had failed to coordinate as they tracked the suspect's activities or to react to possible warning signs in the months before the attack.

President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama attended a somber memorial service at the sprawling Army post, where he spoke about each of those killed.

"Their memory will be honored in the places they lived and by the people they touched," the president said, adding, "Neither this country, nor the values that we were founded upon, could exist without men and women like these 13 Americans."

Near the base, investigators continued searching for clues to the attack, with blue-gloved FBI agents sifting through garbage outside the Islamic Community Center of Greater Killeen, where Army Maj. Nidal M. Hasan worshiped before allegedly firing more than 100 rounds last week in what authorities call the largest attack at a military base in the United States.

In Washington, lawmakers and counterterrorism experts debated whether officials bungled the intelligence analysis or played down the threat that Hasan may have posed.

The concerns resonated in part because of similar accusations that, in the months leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001, strikes, officials had missed opportunities and neglected to share information, contributing to their failure to detect or prevent the attack. Reforms in the eight years since have focused on improving communication between agencies and making intelligence capabilities more nimble.

Hasan, a psychiatrist who had worked at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, came to the attention of two Joint Terrorism Task Forces in December, as he corresponded by e-mail as many as 20 times with radical imam Anwar al-Aulaqi, who has exhorted followers in the United States, Britain and elsewhere to pursue violent jihad, or holy war. The task of vetting Hasan fell to a Defense Department analyst on the D.C.-area task force, who searched the doctor's background, employment records and other paperwork. The analyst concluded that the chatter was innocent, in keeping with Hasan's research interests, and that he did not have links to terrorism, two government officials said Tuesday.

Authorities closed the matter this spring, opting against a full-blown investigation.

Other facts that have emerged since did not enter into the analysis, including Hasan's purchase of a weapon Aug. 1, his alleged Web site posting six months ago about suicide bombings or unease among some of his Walter Reed colleagues after a presentation he gave in 2007 about Muslim soldiers with "religious conflicts."

"Why didn't they interview him and run this to ground?" asked one former U.S. counterterrorism official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the investigation. The official asked the Obama administration this week whether the FBI's operations guidelines prevented agents from doing more before the shootings. If the bureau's hands were tied, "where was the Department of Defense?" the official said.

Said Evan Kohlmann, a terrorism researcher with the NEFA Foundation, a terrorism research group based in Charleston, S.C.: "I find it unbelievable the FBI was not worried -- regardless of the content of the communications -- that an author in the U.S. military outside his job responsibilities was trying to contact somebody who is one of the world's most famous [English-speaking] advocates of jihad. That alone, to me, is a red flag."

Looking back

A senior Defense Department official countered the impression that the military "knew of Major Hasan's contacts with any Muslim extremists before this tragic shooting," saying: "It was not until after the shooting that his e-mails were first brought to our attention by federal investigators."

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