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.
FBI officials were not immediately available to comment on what ground rules prevailed in the joint task forces or whether they were applied in this situation or not. One government official, however, pointed out that to complete the assessment the Defense Criminal Investigative Service representative had to access Hasan's Defense Department personnel file and determine what research he was conducting at the time.
The FBI has launched its own internal review of how it handled the early information about Hasan. Military, law enforcement and intelligence agencies also are defending themselves against tough questions about what each of them knew about Hasan before he allegedly opened fire in a crowded room at the huge military base in Texas.
Hasan has not been formally charged but officials plan to charge him in military court, not a civilian one, a choice that suggests his alleged actions are not thought to have emanated from a terrorist organization. He could face the death penalty.
Investigators believe Hasan acted alone, despite his communications with Anwar al-Awlaki, an imam released from a Yemeni jail last year who has used his personal Web site to encourage Muslims across the world to kill U.S. troops in Iraq. Because the communications between Hasan and al-Awlaki did not contain threats or advocacy of violence, no formal investigation was opened into Hasan, they said.
Officials said the content of those messages was "consistent with the subject matter of his research," part of which involved post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from U.S. combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A law enforcement official said the communications consisted primarily of Hasan posing questions to the imam as a spiritual leader or adviser, and the imam did respond to at least some of those messages.
Investigative officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case on the record. Republican Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said it was his understanding Hasan and the imam exchanged e-mails that counterterrorism officials picked up.
Born in New Mexico, al-Awlaki is a former imam at a Falls Church, Va., mosque where Hasan and his family occasionally worshipped. In 2001, al-Awlaki had contact with two of the Sept. 11 hijackers. That contact was investigated by the FBI, but no charges were brought against al-Awlaki.
On Monday, al-Awlaki's Web site praised Hasan as a hero. A Brea, Calif.,-based company, New Dream Network LLC, which had been hosting the site, declined to answer questions about al-Awlaki, citing customer privacy Tuesday.
"We do work routinely with law enforcement on the local, national and international level in an expedient manner," New Dream Network said in a statement.
By Tuesday, that Web site was offline and it appeared the site may have been hijacked, possibly by Internet pranksters.
Al-Awlaki's Web address was being directed to a new hosting account at Media Temple Inc., a Culver City, Calif.-based company. The account had been created earlier in the day but no content had yet been posted online, company vice president Alex Capehart said late Tuesday.
Hasan's electronic interactions with al-Awlaki have drawn new attention to the imam, who is well known among intelligence circles, a former senior U.S. intelligence official told The Associated Press. Al-Awlaki is considered to have deep and close links with al-Qaida but is not understood to be an al-Qaida operative, the official said.
The Senate has already launched its own inquiry into the Hasan case. Sens. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, plan to hold a hearing on the shootings next week.