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Prosecutors fight pretrial release of Coast Guard officer accused of planning an attack

Federal investigators say Christopher Hasson had a cache of guns stockpiled to launch a terrorist attack targeting liberal politicians and journalists. (U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maryland)

A federal magistrate judge ruled Tuesday that a Coast Guard lieutenant accused of plotting a terrorist attack could be let out of jail on strict bail conditions while he awaits trial, but his release was immediately blocked when the government filed an appeal.

The detention status of Christopher Hasson will now be decided by the U.S. District Court judge who will be presiding over the case, officials with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maryland said. They said a hearing is to be set for next week in federal court in Greenbelt.

Federal prosecutors in Maryland have alleged that Hasson amassed weapons and studied the manifestos of mass killers to plan a widespread attack driven by what they said are his white supremacist views, but prosecutors charged him only with drug and weapon offenses. There is no federal statute pertaining to domestic-terrorism suspects, experts say, making the case challenging for the government.

The government and Hasson’s public defenders have repeatedly clashed over whether Hasson should stay in jail if he has not been charged with a terrorism-related offense.

Hasson’s public defenders have fought back against the government’s assertions, saying prosecutors offered no concrete evidence detailing when and how Hasson was allegedly planning to strike. Hasson’s attorneys said that he has no criminal record and that the writings the government pointed to as evidence of his dangerousness were private thoughts that should not be weighed to keep him in jail pending trial.

Read the Hasson court filing here

Hasson, 50, of Silver Spring, Md., was arrested in February after a Coast Guard program that flags insider threats alerted authorities to suspicious activity on his work computer, prosecutors said. He has pleaded not guilty.

At a detention hearing on April 25, U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles B. Day said he had “grave concerns” about releasing Hasson. But because Hasson faces no terrorism-related counts, and the government does not plan to bring any, the judge determined that the court had to set release conditions.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Assistant Federal Public Defender Liz Oyer suggested that Hasson’s parents in Arizona or his wife and her parents in Virginia could supervise him under round-the-clock home detention. His family had also offered two properties as bond, Oyer said. Hasson’s parents flew in from Arizona and sat in the courtroom with his wife, in-laws and daughter.

The law requires release conditions that would “reasonably assure his appearance in court” in a manner that would not be a danger to the community, Oyer said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Windom argued that releasing Hasson under any condition would be risky because there would be no guarantee that he would not abscond and “do all the things that he has wanted to do.”

“There are no conditions that can reasonably ensure the safety of the community,” Windom said.

In a letter opposing the proposed release conditions, Windom said the suggested locations in Arizona and Virginia would create logistical complications in ensuring that Hasson appears in federal court in Greenbelt for hearings and trial.

“What happens if,” the government said in court filings, “during the drive, the defendant — a thirty-year service member, at least 5’11, and 180 pounds — attempts to escape or commandeer the car from his mother-in-law (age 72) or his father-in-law (age 78)?”

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Despite the objections of the government and pretrial services, Day ordered Hasson released under several conditions.

“It makes me very nervous,” Day said, “but I don’t think it justifies detention.”

Hasson was to stay with one of his wife’s parents in Virginia on uninterrupted GPS monitoring and be banned from using the Internet and handling firearms, Day ordered. Hasson’s family was also expected to put three properties up for bond.

Those terms and several others are moot after Day immediately agreed to put his order on hold and the government appealed the release decision to U.S. District Judge George J. Hazel.

The government appealed “on the basis of the danger to the community posed by the defendant,” Marcy Murphy, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maryland, said in a statement after the hearing.

The government said Hasson had created a spreadsheet of targets and researched the addresses of U.S. Supreme Court justices. Hasson, prosecutors said, studied the writings of mass shooters and was inspired by the far-right Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in 2011.

Hasson planned to “murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country” and advocated “focused violence” to “establish a white homeland,” prosecutors said.

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