Got news? Mother Jones on ghosts in FBI's Hasan probe

Your GetReligionistas normally do not spend much time looking at ideological media outlets, such as National Review or Mother Jones. But rules are made to be broken. The progressive outlet Mother Jones has a great straight news story right now that many other outlets seem to have downplayed or missed. And it has an important religion angle. The piece reveals how internal documents show that the FBI completely mishandled information that could have helped avoid the Fort Hood massacre perpetrated by Nidal Hasan.

The story is published in the context of increasing revelations about how our intelligence system includes the capability of spying on American citizens. In this case we have a story about how intel agencies have long monitored communications with Muslim clerics with ties to terrorism. And a year prior to the massacre, the FBI intercepted emails between Anwar al-Awlaki and Hasan. They described them as "fairly benign." Mother Jones' reporting questions that assessment. It begins:

Last Thursday, as the jury in the trial of Nidal Hasan was deliberating, outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller appeared on CBS News and discussed a string of emails between the Fort Hood shooter and Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Islamic cleric with ties to the 9/11 hijackers. The FBI had intercepted the messages starting almost a year before Hasan's 2009 shooting rampage, and Mueller was asked whether "the bureau dropped the ball" by failing to act on this information. He didn't flinch: "No, I think, given the context of the discussions and the situation that the agents and the analysts were looking at, they took appropriate steps."

In the wake of the Fort Hood attacks, the exchanges between Awlaki and Hasan—who was convicted of murder on Friday—were the subject of intense speculation. But the public was given little information about these messages. While officials claimed that they were "fairly benign," the FBI blocked then-Sen. Joseph Lieberman's efforts to make them public as part of a two-year congressional investigation into Fort Hood. The military judge in the Hasan case also barred the prosecutor from presenting them, saying they would cause "unfair prejudice" and "undue delay."

As it turns out, the FBI quietly released the emails in an unclassified report on the shooting, which was produced by an investigative commission headed by former FBI director William H. Webster last year. And, far from being "benign," they offer a chilling glimpse into the psyche of an Islamic radical. The report also shows how badly the FBI bungled its Hasan investigation and suggests that the Army psychiatrist’s deadly rampage could have been prevented.

Much of the story deals with how the FBI bungled its handling of an investigation into a man who was openly asking Awlaki for permission to kill American soldiers. We get specifics about the bureaucratic mis-steps and failures. We learn from the article that "a group of more than 100 Fort Hood victims and victims' relatives has filed suit claiming that the government's 'gross negligence' and 'reckless disregard' for the lives of Fort Hood residents and staff paved the way for the tragedy."

The emails themselves have some religious components and context that I do wish were further explored:

Meanwhile, Hasan kept writing Awlaki...

The San Diego field office intercepted these missives, too. But the database where the FBI stored intercepted emails didn't automatically link messages from the same sender, so the staff didn't realize that Hasan’s early 2009 emails were from the person who had set off alarms the previous December. Meanwhile, the Washington-based DCIS agent assigned to investigate Hasan put off his inquiry for another 90 days, the maximum allowed under joint task force rules, before conducting a cursory investigation. Over the course of four hours on May 27, 2009, he ran Hasan's name through several databases to see if the psychiatrist had been targeted in previous counterterrorism probes. He also reviewed Hasan's Pentagon personnel file. Hasan's officer evaluations were mostly positive, and the chair of psychiatry at Walter Reed had written that Hasan's research on Islamic beliefs regarding military service had "extraordinary potential to inform national policy and military strategy."

The Senate investigation later found these reports "bore no resemblance to the real Hasan, a barely competent psychiatrist whose radicalization toward violent Islamist extremism alarmed his colleagues and his superiors." Nevertheless, the DCIS investigator concluded, based on Hasan's file, that the Army psychiatrist had contacted Awlaki in connection with his academic research and "was not involved in terrorist activity." The DCIS investigator and a supervisory agent in the Washington field office debated interviewing Hasan or his superiors. They ultimately decided doing so could jeopardize the Awlaki investigation or harm Hasan's career.

Advocates for Fort Hood victims find this decision puzzling. "A US Army major is writing to this Imam and essentially asking for religious sanction to kill American soldiers," said attorney Reed Rubinstein, who represents a group of victims who are suing the federal government. "And the FBI's Washington field office doesn’t even interview the man or make a phone call to his superiors. It's utterly incomprehensible."

In May 2009, around the time the Washington field office wrapped up its Hasan investigation, Hasan’s emails to Awlaki took an ominous turn. In one message, he said he had "heard a speaker defending suicide bombings as permissible" and laid out the speaker's rationale:

For example, he reported a recent incident were an American Soldier jumped on a grenade that was thrown at a group of soldiers. In doing so he saved 7 soldiers but killed himself... So, he says this proves that suicide is permissible in this example because he is a hero. Then he compares this to a soldier who sneaks into an enemy camp during dinner and detonates his suicide vest to prevent an attack that is know to be planned the following day.

Hasan made the case that the second act was as heroic as the first. He then delved into the question of "'collateral damage' where a decision is made to allow the killing of innocents for a valuable target."

"I would assume that suicide bomber whose aim is to kill enemy soldiers or their helpers but also kill innocents in the process is acceptable," he wrote.

Learning about the government's incompetence in handling this matter is very important. And I'm elated to see treatment of this issue, even if it does very little to help the many families whose lives were irreparably harmed by Hasan's murderous actions. As tmatt wrote recently, "Once again, the key is what Hasan’s superiors knew, in advance, about his frame of mind and his fierce opposition to the U.S. Army’s role in Afghanistan and in the Islamic world." This speaks briefly, at least, to that point.

But I'm also curious to learn more about what answers Hasan received to his line of questioning. It sounds like Awlaki didn't really respond as much as Hasan might have liked. Did Hasan talk himself into violent action? On what grounds? Did he receive input from other clerics? What do various schools of Islam have to say about justification for violence of this nature? Are we ourselves pushing much further than the initial governmental response of "nothing to see here, move along"?

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