Lawmakers questioning the FBI’s treatment of a tip about the radicalization of Tamerlan Tsarnaev may begin to find some answers in last year’s review of another case in which known extremism was downplayed with fatal results.
That was the case of Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, accused of shooting 13 people to death and wounding 42 on Nov. 5, 2009, at the Fort Hood deployment center after jumping on a desk and shouting “Allahu Akbar!”
The Final Report of the William H. Webster Commission on the FBI, Counterterrorism Intelligence, and the Events at Fort Hood, Texas was released last July without much attention as the suspect sat in perennial pretrial motions. It detailed a Bureau that brushed aside warning signs of a known extremist as he grew more radical and communicated with Yemeni cleric and al-Qaeda recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki.
The 173-page report containing sporadic redactions relayed conversations of agents just months before the Fort Hood attack arguing that they don’t “go out and interview every Muslim guy who visits extremist websites,” with the Washington, D.C., field office also advising the San Diego field office that the subject of probing someone like Hasan is “politically sensitive.”
One email determined that “Hasan was conducting US Army sponsored research that was online with the questions he sent Aulaqi.”
“If you have additional information regarding Hasan’s links to terrorism or request any specific action, please share and we will re-assess,” Washington told San Diego.
The FBI decided not to even interview Hasan and failed to consider searching for messages from al-Awlaki. “Their assessment of Hasan was belated, incomplete, and rushed,” the Webster report states.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce-Justice-Science, said in August at a hearing on the report that it raised serious concerns about the FBI choosing the path of least resistance when confronted with a potentially controversial investigation.
“I am concerned that there were warning signs, and that with more aggressive investigation, there is a chance that this incident could have been prevented,” Wolf said. “I am further concerned that the reason for less aggressive investigation may have been political sensitivities in the Washington Field Office, and maybe even the FBI’s own investigating guidelines.”
“An active duty member of the military communicating with a known radicalizer and recruiter should have been taken more seriously than it was. The report shows that the San Diego field office believed that at the time, as is shown by their unusual reaction to how the lead was handled by the Washington Field Office.”
Wolf asked FBI Director Robert Mueller to come testify at that hearing, but the Bureau sent Mark Giuliano, executive assistant director for national security.
In a lengthy letter to Mueller after the hearing, Wolf raised concerns that Giuliano “made comments to the committee that I believe were misleading or incorrect with regard to the nature of findings in the Webster Commission report and the FBI’s understanding of Anwar Aulaqi at various points over the last decade.”
In all, Wolf singled out six troubling statements from the FBI official as “potentially misleading, uninformed or incomplete.”
At the hearing, Wolf grilled Giuliano on whether political correctness led to agents being gun-shy about aggressively pursing Hasan’s links with Islamic extremists.
“The report did not find political correctness was in any way, shape, or form responsible for his lack of going forward with the interview,” Giuliano responded, countering the pair of noted concerns in the report about “political sensitivities” being a factor in Washington’s decision not to investigate Hasan further.
“I repeatedly asked Mr. Giuiliano to cite the section of the report that found that there was no political correctness ‘in any way, shape, or form,’ but he refused. When I confronted him about misleading the committee, he admitted that I was correct on that point,” Wolf wrote in the letter to Mueller. “Later in the hearing reversed again and said that he and I just ‘disagree’ on that point.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) met Sunday evening with an unnamed assistant director at the FBI who told him that the FBI missed Tsarnaev’s six-month trip to Russia last year because of a misspelling by the airline.