WASHINGTON, D.C. — Senior government officials confirmed Monday that since late last year they had been assessing the threat presented by Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the lone suspect in the shooting rampage that killed 13 people and wounded 29 at Fort Hood Thursday.
Investigators acknowledged that they intercepted 10 to 20 “communications” between Hasan and an individual overseas since late last year. The New York Times reports that this individual is Anwar al-Awlaki, a Muslim cleric who preached in a Washington-area mosque that Hasan attended in 2001 but has since fled to Yemen. Mr. Awlaki has been linked to at least two of the 9/11 hijackers.
Investigators, however, said that the nature of the correspondence between the two was social and contained “religious guidance” that was consistent with a research project Hasan was conducting as a psychiatrist at the Walter Reed Medical Center. It was not deemed threatening enough to open an investigation against Hasan.
The joint task force that monitored Hasan was led by the FBI and included members of the Defense Department, but it remains unclear whether Army officials were briefed on Hasan’s activities. Neither scenario is likely to satisfy lawmakers or the nation: Either the task force officials did not share the intelligence, raising pre-9/11 questions about the government’s ability to pass along information effectively, or they did share the information, and the Army failed to do anything about it.
“It’s increasingly becoming clear that there are a lot of red flags concerning this guy that people should have picked up on,” says James Carafano, a senior expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.
The senior investigation officials, who spoke only on the condition that they not be identified, said this was not true. Nothing in the correspondence between Hasan and his overseas contact suggested any attack, they said.
“In my view, there was not a smoking gun or a red flag” from the communications between the two for someone to intervene, said a senior investigator.
Investigators are still trying to determine who knew what, when, or if they missed any signs that would have led authorities to mount a more robust investigation of Hasan.
The lack of details from officials at the Army, the Department of Homeland Security, and the FBI has angered lawmakers eager for briefings on Hasan’s possible links to terrorist groups.
“President Obama said people should not jump to conclusions about what happened at Fort Hood, but the administration is in possession of critical information related to the attack that they are refusing to release to Congress or the American people,” Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R) of Michigan said in a statement.
The senior officials reiterated Monday that Hasan is the only suspect, and that he was not thought to be coerced by anyone else – dousing suggestions of a terrorist plot. Hasan was shot by police during the attack and is recuperating at an Army medical center in Texas. When investigators sought to interrogate him Sunday, he refused to answer their questions.
Hasan first came to authorities’ attention during the investigation of another person – the man thought to be Awlaki. Media reports have focused on the possible connection between Hasan and Awlaki. Hasan is believed to have attended the Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Va., in 2001, at the time of his mother’s funeral. Awlaki was there at the time. A US citizen who now lives in Yemen, Awlaki runs an English-language website that has championed Hasan as a hero since Thursday.
The links between Al Qaeda and Awlaki remain murky. Two of the 9/11 hijackers attended his services in Virginia in 2001. In Yemen, he is not one of the most prominent clerics, says Gregory Johnsen, an expert on Yemen at Princeton University. He was jailed by the Yemeni government at the behest of the American government but then released in late 2007.
His message, at least, “is one that is broadly supportive of the goals and narrative that Al Qaeda puts out,” Professor Johnsen says.
The 9/11 attacks pointed to the inability or unwillingness of various government agencies to share crucial intelligence with one another. Although many reforms have been implemented, there remain cultural and bureaucratic impediments to cooperation with one another, experts say.
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I) of Connecticut is calling on the Pentagon to investigate the Fort Hood shootings. On Monday, he announced that he would investigate the motives behind Hasan’s alleged attack. Senator Lieberman is chairman of the committee on homeland security.