By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
FBI leaders announced Tuesday that they are launching an independent investigation into the policies and actions of two bureau task forces that reviewed e-mails from the alleged Fort Hood shooter in the months before the Nov. 5 massacre at the Army base.
The inquiry will be headed by William H. Webster, who served as director of both the FBI and the CIA in the 1980s. He will have free rein to probe whether there were lapses in sharing information about Army Maj. Nidal M. Hasan within the FBI and between that agency and the military. Hasan, a military psychiatrist, has been charged with murder and attempted murder in the deaths of 13 people and the wounding of nearly three dozen others at the base in Texas last month.
The action by FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III is the first significant signal since the attack that the bureau is concerned about its own actions. The Defense Department had already launched such an inquiry, led by former military officials.
Hasan exchanged as many as 18 e-mail messages with radical Yemeni American cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi between December 2008 and May 2009. But a joint terrorism task force analyst determined that the correspondence was innocent and in keeping with the doctor's research into religious conflicts among some Muslims in the military.
Two of those messages were forwarded this year from an FBI office in San Diego to one in Washington, where Hasan had worked at the Walter Reed medical facility. But a later e-mail message that federal government sources have described as more serious was not shared with the Washington agents, a government official said. An analyst in San Diego assessed the more recent messages and concluded that they matched the previous, innocent correspondence. Violent rhetoric from Aulaqi, who once served as an imam at a large Northern Virginia mosque attended by two of the Sept. 11 hijackers, has inspired terror plots in Britain, Canada and the United States, national security experts say.
Agents in both FBI offices decided that the information was innocuous and that they did not need to launch a full-blown investigation, which might have entailed interviewing Hasan's military colleagues, or to share the messages with Defense Department officials.
In the weeks since the attack, Army personnel have come forward to express what they said were their earlier misgivings about Hasan. They described a PowerPoint presentation he gave in 2007 arguing that the military should allow Muslim soldiers to opt out of conflicts against other Muslims in order to avoid "adverse events." None of this information, however, appeared in military personnel records that the FBI analysts consulted in their assessment of Hasan's e-mail.
Webster's inquiry does not have a formal deadline, FBI officials said, but it is expected to follow the same timeline as the Defense Department's review, with an initial report due in January.
After-action reports on the shooting, for which Hasan has denied responsibility through a defense attorney, prompted President Obama to order intelligence and military chiefs to explain how the incident occurred and to ensure that nothing like it happens again.
The FBI sent an internal report on its actions to the White House on Nov. 30, but officials there have not offered any public comment as to its substance or recommendations. FBI officials say that the review did not turn up any new information that elevated concerns about the bureau but that appointing an independent overseer is a "common-sense next step."
Webster, a retired federal judge, has substantial experience with the intelligence community and with civil liberties. He will have the authority to make recommendations about FBI guidelines for national security probes and possible changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which closely guards the sharing of information about U.S. citizens who emerge on the law enforcement radar screen. Changes to the FISA law could provoke alarm among civil liberties groups and some Democratic lawmakers who have called for stricter oversight of intelligence activities.
A representative for Webster said Tuesday that he would have no immediate comment on his new assignment.
Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.