Washington — Finger-pointing erupted between federal agencies Tuesday over Fort Hood shooting suspect Nidal Hasan. Government officials said a Defense Department terrorism investigator looked into Hasan’s contacts with a radical imam months ago, but a military official denied prior knowledge of the Army psychiatrist’s contacts with any Muslim extremists.
The two government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case on the record, said the Washington-based joint terrorism task force overseen by the FBI was notified of communications between Hasan and a radical imam overseas, and the information was turned over to a Defense Criminal Investigative Service employee assigned to the task force. The communications were gathered by investigators beginning in December 2008 and continuing into early this year.
That defense investigator wrote up an assessment of Hasan after reviewing the communications and the Army major’s personnel file, according to these officials. The assessment concluded Hasan did not merit further investigation — in large part because his communications with the imam were centered on a research paper about the effects of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan and the investigator determined that Hasan was in fact working on such a paper, the officials said.
The disclosure came as questions swirled about whether opportunities were missed to head off the massacre in which 13 died and 29 were wounded last Thursday — a familiar, early stage in the investigation of headline-grabbing crimes when public officials involved in a case often speak anonymously as they try to shift any blame to rivals in other agencies.
The disclosure Tuesday of the defense investigator’s role suggested that the U.S. military was aware of worrisome behavior by the massacre suspect long before the attack. Just hours later, a senior defense official, also demanding anonymity, directly contradicted that notion.
The senior defense official said neither the Army nor any other part of the Defense Department knew of Hasan’s contacts with any Muslim extremists. But the defense official carefully conceded this view was based upon what the Pentagon knows now.
Hours later, the same senior defense official reiterated flatly that the Defense Department was not notified before the Fort Hood massacre of investigations into Hasan, despite the participation of two Defense Department investigators on two joint task forces run by the FBI that looked at Hasan.
This defense official asserted that the task force ground rules barred any members from telling their home agency about task force findings without approval of the other investigators and wasn’t aware of whether there was ever any discussion of doing that.