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Possible agency missteps debated
Officials' handling of potential Hasan threat at issue

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."

One senior investigator told reporters Monday evening that there were no signs that Hasan was pursuing an attack and that he had maintained positive job evaluations and a secret security clearance. "Sure, you can go back after the fact, 20-20, and read in all kinds of things about what it meant," he said.

Still, debate simmered even within FBI ranks about whether the bureau had been hampered by guidelines dictating when officials can open investigations, according to a government source.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the president has directed agencies to evaluate what went wrong. And FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III has ordered a "red team" of investigators to determine whether the bureau should have handled the information differently.

The FBI and Defense Department continue to assert that Hasan acted on his own, without direction from terrorists or radical elements, but they cautioned that the investigation could take "some time." Senior investigators have said that an alleged motive for Hasan, who has declined to talk to the FBI or the Army's Criminal Investigative Command, could long remain a mystery.

Irrespective of whether outsiders directed Hasan to allegedly commit the shootings, counterterrorism experts and former government officials say that the events indicate limits in the capacity to detect an actual terrorism plot, given that al-Qaeda has advocated infiltrating the U.S. and other militaries in the past, and that many attacks have involved people posing in uniform or using their military positions.

In a July 2006 propaganda video, for example, an al-Qaeda spokesman, California native Adam Gadahn, explicitly encouraged viewers with grievances against U.S. military actions in Iraq "to go on a shooting spree at the Marines' housing facilities at Camp Pendleton," according to the NEFA Foundation.

Investigators said that Hasan emerged last year only because he was in contact with Aulaqi, the subject of an investigation.

Waiting for evidence

On Capitol Hill, backbiting continued among members of the House intelligence committee, where Rep. Peter Hoekstra (Mich.), the panel's ranking Republican, clashed with Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.) over the timing and substance of briefings that intelligence services have yet to provide on the shootings.

But after the memorial service, Rep. John Carter (R-Tex.), whose district includes the post, said he "put great store" by the Texas Rangers, FBI and the Criminal Investigation Command, and urged people not to jump to conclusions about whether warning signs were ignored.

"As an old trial judge who has spent a lot of time on the bench, I know you don't have anything until the evidence is unveiled," Carter said. "The rest is just speculation."

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