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."
Awlaki was the imam at a Virginia mosque that Hasan attended in 2001. The mosque later drew the attention of the FBI and the Sept. 11 commission because of Awlaki's connection to at least two of the Sept. 11 hijackers, who may have followed him from a mosque in San Diego to the Dar al Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Va., in early 2001. A U.S. citizen, Awlaki left the country in 2002 and is believed to be in Yemen and actively supporting the Islamist jihad, or holy war against the West, through his website.
Several officials said U.S. intelligence agencies first intercepted communications between Hasan and Awlaki in late 2008 as a result of another investigation. The information was given to one Joint Terrorism Task Force and then to a second one in Washington because Hasan was living in the area while working and attending classes at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and a military-affiliated health sciences university in Bethesda, Md. "When reviewed, there was nothing to raise a red flag," one of the officials said Monday.
The task forces determined that Hasan contacted the radical cleric between 10 and 20 times, but it was mostly "within the context of the doctor's position and what he was doing at the time, conducting research . . . on the issues of Muslims in the military and the effects of war in Muslim countries," one senior FBI official said earlier Monday. Another official said the research involved post-traumatic stress syndrome and was sanctioned by Hasan's academic overseers.
But Hoekstra expressed frustration with the handling of the intelligence on Hasan, saying authorities had underestimated the significance of the material they had obtained -- including that Awlaki responded to several of the e-mails.
Those responses were regarded by U.S. authorities as "relatively innocuous," Hoekstra said. But, he added, "I think the fact that you're getting responses should have set off red flags regardless of the content."
Hoekstra said authorities appeared to have been looking for evidence of direction from overseas or communication involving a developing plot. "They're looking for somebody to say, 'Go.' " he said. "But I don't think that's the kind of organization [Al Qaeda] is trying to set up. They're more in the world of, if you see an opportunity, take advantage of it and you don't have to get it approved at headquarters."
In an interview, the senior FBI official defended the bureau's handling of the matter, saying: "The process worked."
"If we find in his e-mails that he reached out to all kinds of other people for input," that assessment could change, the official said. "We just don't have the full context yet."
The emerging details are likely to draw parallels with intelligence breakdowns that preceded the Sept. 11 attacks, when the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency and other agencies failed to recognize or share information that may have helped uncover the plot.
Fixing those problems was the focus of a sweeping overhaul of the U.S. intelligence community.
Congressional investigators "are going to be taking a look at all of the information and making decisions on whether people should have been notified along the way," said a congressional official who has been briefed on the Hasan probe. "I think that's going to depend on the nature of the communications."
Times staff writer Ashley Powers in Ft. Hood, Texas, contributed to this report.