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.
The referral of Tsarnaev to the FBI was likely tainted by incredulity, as the Kremlin will happily persecute and accuse anyone seen as an enemy of the state even if they’re as harmless as a human-rights activist.
But the revelations in the Webster report about how “political sensitivities” played into a scant investigation of one terrorist should surface in determining whether this time the FBI “dropped the ball,” as lawmakers are describing the dismissal of the Chechen immigrant’s extremism after following up on Russia’s tip and interviewing Tsarnaev in 2011.
Senate Intelligence Committee members learned today that Russia delivered not one but “multiple” warnings that Tsarnaev was a radical Islamist preparing to head overseas to join with an illicit group.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano even contradicted Graham’s source at a hearing on the immigration bill today, saying there was indeed notification when the elder Tsarnaev brother hopped a flight to Russia.
“The system pinged when he was leaving the United States. By the time he returned, all investigations had been — the matter had been closed,” she said.
“Is it true that his identity document did not match his airline ticket? And if so, why did TSA miss the discrepancy?” asked Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).
“There was a mismatch there,” Napolitano said. “By the way, the bill will help with this because it requires that passports be electronically readable, as opposed to having to be manually input. It really does a good job of getting human error, to the extent it exists, out of the process. But even under — even with the misspelling, under our current system, there are redundancies, and so the system did ping when he was leaving the United States.”
She clarified later in the hearing to Graham that the FBI alert on Tsarnaev upon his return “was more than a year old and had expired.”
“The point I’m trying to make is after having talked to the FBI, they told me they had no knowledge of him leaving or coming back. The name was misspelled,” Graham said. “…And when we say there was no broader plot here, I just don’t know how in the world we know that at this early stage.”
The House and Senate Intelligence committees received a closed-door briefing from the FBI today about agents’ questioning of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev at the 19-year-old’s hospital bed. The surviving suspect’s condition was upgraded today from serious to fair.
“I’ll be honest, it is not clear even after the interview of the suspect in custody has been conducted, it’s still not clear exactly why they did this,” committee member Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) told CNN afterward. “…There are lots of inconsistencies that the FBI is going to have to ferret out.”
“You have a young man who’s coming and going with respect to the sedation that he’s been under and very traumatic experience for any 19-year-old and he’s obviously shown some emotion about his involvement and the facts leading up to this taking place,” he added.
Asked if that “emotion” included feeling sorry for what he’d done, Chambliss said, “I don’t think there’s been any indication of remorse.”
Two days ago, al-Qaeda affiliated Somali terror group Al-Shabaab tweeted that the Boston attack showed the West is oblivious to the “jihadi siren blasts.”
“There is a Nidal Hasan in every sincere Muslims in the West. When their wrath exceeds the tolerable threshold, be worried.”