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Fort Hood suspect was on U.S. radar

Nidal Malik Hasan's contacts with a radical Islamic cleric linked to some of the 9/11 hijackers were investigated but found to be mostly innocuous, officials say.

November 10, 2009|Josh Meyer and Greg Miller

WASHINGTON — The FBI and the military investigated contacts over the last year between an Army psychiatrist accused in the deadly Ft. Hood rampage and a Yemen-based militant cleric linked to some of the Sept. 11 hijackers, but concluded the shooting suspect did not pose a threat, senior law enforcement and military officials said Monday.

After U.S. intelligence officials intercepted their e-mails, members of two Joint Terrorism Task Forces contacted Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan's superiors and reviewed his academic and military records for evidence of suspicious activity late last year and early this year, according to three senior U.S. officials.

But the investigators concluded that Hasan's activities did not warrant a more formal investigation, even though the imam, Anwar al Awlaki, had ties to Al Qaeda operatives and was the author of a popular website espousing jihadist activity, the three officials said.

The disclosure that Hasan had ongoing communications with Awlaki raised questions of whether U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies had information that, if properly shared and investigated, might have helped prevent last week's attack on the Texas military base. Hasan is accused of firing more than 100 rounds from a pair of semiautomatic handguns, killing 13 people and injuring dozens more. Fifteen people remained hospitalized Monday, with eight in intensive care.

In the Hasan "assessment," the officials conceded Monday, authorities did not know that he had purchased at least one semiautomatic handgun last summer at a store in Killeen, Texas, even though such purchases go through an FBI check. And there was no indication, the officials said, that investigators knew about an inflammatory Internet posting from May in which a writer named "NidalHasan" likened a suicide bomber to a soldier who jumps on a grenade to save the lives of his fellow officers -- in that both were sacrificing their lives "for a more noble cause."

The officials disclosed those details at a highly unusual briefing with reporters Monday evening, after conducting a similar one with Capitol Hill lawmakers. For the most part, they defended investigators, saying they had acted on the best information available at the time. The officials also said Hasan's e-mails to Awlaki appeared mostly innocuous and not worthy of further investigation or monitoring under Justice Department guidelines.

But, one of them acknowledged, "painted in the worst light, in hindsight, someone could reach different conclusions."

As part of the shooting inquiry, which is being led by the Army's Criminal Investigation Command, officials are reassessing the communications between Hasan and Awlaki -- and possibly other militant Islamist figures -- to see whether clues might have been missed.

Potentially among those, the Washington Post reported Monday night, was a warning Hasan issued to a roomful of senior Army physicians a year and a half ago in which he said that to avoid "adverse events," the military should allow Muslim soldiers to be released as conscientious objectors instead of fighting in wars against other Muslims.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III also has ordered a review of the bureau's "internal processes."

During the briefing Monday, the officials also said they were trying to determine whether Hasan might have acted alone, and whether he was radicalized or perhaps directed by others.

So far, that does not appear to be the case.

"But this is the beginning of a very long and complex investigation," said another of the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the ongoing nature of the case.

The officials also said that Hasan would be tried in a military court, although he has yet to be arrested.

Maria Gallegos, a spokeswoman for Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, said Hasan had been conscious and talking to medical staff since Saturday. He is in critical but stable condition. Investigators tried to interview him Sunday but he refused, officials said.

President Obama is slated to speak this afternoon at a memorial service at Ft. Hood, a traditional military affair that includes a sermon, a roll call of the dead and a rifle volley. Lt. Gen. Robert W. Cone, the base's commanding general, expected the families of the 13 people killed to be among the 3,000 in attendance.

Even before Monday's disclosures, lawmakers were calling for inquiries into whether the Army, FBI and U.S. intelligence community had missed warning signs about Hasan's increasing radicalization in the months before Thursday's shootings.

"I think the very fact that you've got a major in the U.S. Army contacting [Awlaki], or attempting to contact him, would raise some red flags," said Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee. Hoekstra said his office had been contacted by U.S. officials involved in the case who believed that "the system just broke down."

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