WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. Army psychiatrist sought advice from a militant Muslim cleric on whether killing American soldiers would bring him glory, in emails months before he was accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, according to copies of his emails released on Thursday.
The emails became public for the first time as part of a report assessing what the FBI knew about Major Nidal Hasan and whether the agency could have prevented his 2009 shooting spree.
Hasan, 41, is scheduled to stand trial in a military court-martial on August 20 for the shooting spree, which also wounded more than 30. He faces the death penalty if convicted.
The FBI was in possession of Hasan’s emails before the shooting. The new report by former FBI Director William Webster faulted the FBI for not being more alarmed that Hasan, while in the military, was in contact with Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born Muslim cleric who was being tracked by U.S. intelligence because of his extreme views.
The FBI should have interviewed Hasan and shared the information its agents had with the Defense Department, Webster’s report said. The report also makes recommendations about training and FBI investigative guidelines.
But echoing previous evaluations of the FBI’s conduct, the report said that the agency had no specific knowledge of the impending Fort Hood shooting or reason to believe that Hasan was moving so quickly in the direction of violence.
What concerned San Diego-based FBI agents about Hasan were emails beginning in December 2008 to al-Awlaki, whom U.S. authorities would later call a leader of al Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate.
Hasan’s first email referred to Hasan Akbar, a Muslim U.S. Army sergeant who killed two officers in a 2003 grenade attack in Kuwait. He asked whether al-Awlaki considered Akbar or others who “have committed such acts with the goal of helping Muslims/Islam” to be martyrs.
Al-Awlaki did not respond, but Hasan continued to write, offering help in a February email. “I believe my biggest strength is my financial situation,” he wrote, adding that any assistance would need to follow U.S. law.
In a postscript, he wrote that he was “looking for a wife that is willing to strive with me to please Allah” and “will strongly consider a recommendation coming from you.”
Al-Awlaki, who was killed in a drone strike in Yemen in September 2011, briefly responded twice to Hasan in February. He wrote that he would be “embarrassed” to judge an award in his honor, and that he was at a loss for how Hasan could safely transfer money.
The FBI-commissioned report does not show that al-Awlaki wrote again, but Hasan kept trying to contact him into June 2009 with personal details and reports of lectures.
On May 31, Hasan wrote that he “heard a speaker defending suicide bombings” and “have been using his logic in debates to see how effective it really is.”
Hasan considered hypothetical scenarios, such as a soldier detonating a “suicide vest” inside an enemy camp to prevent an attack the next day.
“So, I would assume that suicide bomber whose aim is to kill enemy soldiers or their helpers but also kill innocents in the process is acceptable,” Hasan wrote.
What the FBI did with the emails has been a matter of debate since word of their existence emerged shortly after the Fort Hood shooting in November 2009. FBI Director Robert Mueller asked Webster to prepare an independent evaluation.
The 173-page report from Webster, a former judge who worked with a commission of five lawyers and former FBI officials, concludes that the FBI failed in several ways.
Agents never attempted to interview Hasan, in part because agents in the FBI’s Washington Field Office were politically sensitive about interviewing Muslim men who visit extremist websites, the report said.
One agent in an email to another downplayed the potential threat posed by Hasan: “Given the context of his military/medical research and the content of his, to date unanswered email messages, WFO does not currently assess HASAN to be involved in terrorist activities.”
Webster’s report concluded that some FBI employees involved in the matter lacked training to access the agency’s database, so that they did not see all of Hasan’s emails and al-Awlaki’s two responses. It also concluded that the reasons for not interviewing him “seemed to be weak excuses.”
“Pretext interviews are common FBI tradecraft. FBI Agents talk to subjects and assess threat levels every day,” it said.
AGENTS HAD ‘GOOD INTENT’
At no time, the report continued, did the FBI tell the military they were assessing Hasan, or have a policy to do so whenever evaluating someone in the military.
Hasan, whose parents were Palestinian and who had recently completed his medical residency, was preparing for deployment to Afghanistan before opening fire at a Fort Hood deployment center. During the shooting, he was paralyzed from the chest down by bullet wounds inflicted by civilian police officers.
Hasan’s colleagues during his medical training were aware of his “radicalization to violent Islamist extremism” and two of them considered him a “ticking time bomb,” according to a separate 2011 report by a U.S. Senate committee.
Still, Webster’s report recommends against any discipline for the FBI agents and analysts involved, saying that they “acted with good intent” and not “disregard of duties.”
In a written statement, Mueller called the report “thorough” and said the bureau has implemented some changes.
U.S. Senators Joseph Lieberman and Susan Collins, authors of the 2011 report, said in a statement on Thursday that the release of Hasan’s emails allows the public to “understand Hasan’s radicalization and the full scale of the tragedy for which he is responsible.”
Editing by Eric Walsh