FBI asks former chief to lead Ft. Hood review

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III on Tuesday tapped former CIA and FBI chief William H. Webster to lead an independent review of the bureau’s “policies, practices and actions” before last month’s shooting rampage at Ft. Hood, Texas.

Webster, who also was a federal judge, “is uniquely qualified to undertake this task and look at the procedures and actions involved in this matter,” Mueller said. “It is essential to determine whether there are improvements to our current practices or other authorities that could make us all safer in the future.”

The FBI has already conducted an internal investigation into the Nov. 5 shootings -- which killed 13 and injured dozens -- and sent those findings to the White House, several FBI officials confirmed. Bureau officials, lawmakers and other sources who requested anonymity when discussing the inquiry said it uncovered gaps in the way the FBI investigates potential terrorist threats and shares that information with other agencies.

The internal review also raised questions about whether Justice Department guidelines in place at the time required too much evidence of suspected wrongdoing before agents could launch a criminal investigation; those guidelines were loosened late last year.

Two FBI-led joint terrorism task forces -- one in San Diego and another in Washington -- had investigated the accused gunman, Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, prior to the attack.

At least one of the task forces discovered that the Army psychiatrist had exchanged more than a dozen e-mails over the last year with Anwar Awlaki, a Yemen-based Islamic militant with well-known ties to Al Qaeda. But it was determined that the correspondence was not threatening and was in keeping with Hasan’s academic research. No formal criminal investigation was opened, senior bureau officials said in a briefing last month.

Since that briefing, however, more information has trickled out about Hasan’s communications with several radical websites, including one run by Awlaki, who in 2001 preached at a Virginia mosque attended by Hasan and at least two of the Sept. 11 hijackers. The American-born Awlaki has incited militants here and overseas to plot or launch terrorist attacks.

The decision to conduct an outside review is “not based on any findings or hot potato we’re handing off to [Webster]. It really isn’t,” said one senior FBI official. “It is a logical step in the sequence. The director felt it was important to have someone who is independent take a look both at our review and anything else he wants to look at.”

That official described Webster as well-suited to look not only at the Ft. Hood case, but at “how we go forward” and balance civil liberties and privacy issues with the need to investigate potential threats. Webster also will be in a position to make recommendations that go beyond internal FBI policies and into the realm of more significant changes to laws and broader inter-agency guidelines on information sharing and opening investigations into U.S. citizens, according to several FBI officials.

Webster, 85, has led other independent reviews of FBI systems and broader policies. He and his staff will coordinate their inquiry with similar reviews underway by the Pentagon, Mueller said. President Obama has also ordered a government-wide inquiry into the matter.