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Suspect’s ‘Radical’ Views Examined in Fort Hood Investigation

November 10, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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Gwen Ifill speaks with two reporters about the ongoing investigation into last week's attack at Fort Hood, including new revelations that the alleged shooter had ties to a radical cleric in Yemen known for his anti-American teachings.
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GWEN IFILL: As military and civilian leaders were paying their respects at Fort Hood today, Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan continued to recuperate in a Texas hospital. He remains the sole suspect in last week’s shootings, and investigators there and in Washington are stepping up their inquiry into his background and possible motives.

Joining us for more on that investigation are Dana Priest, military affairs reporter for “The Washington Post,” and Josh Meyer, who covers the Department of Justice for “The Los Angeles Times.”

Welcome to you both.

DANA PRIEST, “The Washington Post”: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: Josh Meyer, it turns out that Nidal Hasan has been investigated before. Tell us about that.

JOSH MEYER, “The Los Angeles Times”: Well, the FBI, as part of a joint terrorist task force late last year and early this year — actually, it’s multiagency — they and the military were looking into his e-mail contacts with a radical Islamic — Islamist cleric in Yemen named Anwar al-Awlaki, who has been onto the radar of the FBI and other agencies for many, many years.

They were trying to determine if he was plotting some terrorist attacks or the character of these e-mails. And they ultimately decided that they didn’t rise to the level of suspicion that would prompt a full investigation, and the matter was dropped.

GWEN IFILL: So, we know that he wrote to this imam. He — know that — we know that they — he responded. But we don’t know yet exactly what the content was that investigators at the time did not think was particularly serious.

JOSH MEYER: No.

And authorities are saying that the — at the time, they appeared to be mostly innocuous — I think the word “mundane” was used — about 10 to 20 e-mails, and that Awlaki responded to several of them, and that they said that they really saw nothing in there that was alarmist that would allow them to establish the kind of criminal predicate they could use to start an ongoing investigation.

In hindsight now, they say that you might interpret some of those e-mails in a different way, but at the time that they had no reason to believe that anything was afoot.

Suspect was 'very quiet, a loner'

Dana Priest
Washington Post
People who worked with him said he didn't really want to have many friends. He was not very productive.

GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about hindsight a little bit, Dana Priest.

What do we know about him based on the six years that he spent at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here in Washington?

DANA PRIEST: Well he was very quiet, a loner. People who worked with him said he didn't really want to have many friends. He was not very productive.

He was already very religious, and he prayed many times during the day, and sometimes wouldn't show up. They counseled him for that. And he really was odd. I mean, that is really the word that kept coming back.

Talked to some patients that he treated. He prescribed mainly medication for them. It wasn't like deep routine daily therapy or anything like that.

GWEN IFILL: You wrote today, in today's "Washington Post," about the PowerPoint presentation that he made, I guess in 2007?

DANA PRIEST: Seven.

GWEN IFILL: Tell us about that.

DANA PRIEST: And he was a four years there as a student. And at the end of the four years, every student was supposed to make a presentation about some medical issue of their choosing. And he chose not a medical issue, actually, but to talk about Islam and its implications for the U.S. military.

And it's a 50-page presentation. He stood up in front of his supervisors and a room full of other physicians and mental health staff and read them his research, which amounted to not a moderate view of Islam and the Koran, but a quite radical view of Islam and the Koran, with warnings throughout that Muslims will not be able to come to grips with this conflict that they will have within them if they are asked to fight and kill other Muslims, and that this could create adverse effects, if the Army did not first identify them, talk to them, and then allow them to leave the service as conscientious objectors, if it came to that.

GWEN IFILL: Josh Meyer, another thing which came out today, it turns out that Nidal Hasan bought a gun, that didn't -- somehow didn't show up, didn't raise any red flags, a private weapon.

JOSH MEYER: Well, you know, that's one of the concerns of authorities, that they don't -- is that they don't know exactly what he was doing, who he was talking to online and what he was purchasing and so forth. Some of the guns that he did buy did show up.

But, you know, that's one of the problems with so many loopholes in the gun laws, according to critics, is that you might not have track of that kind of thing. But they're also concerned that he did buy a gun earlier this year, you know, and that the database is not -- you know, that that somehow didn't raise a red flag as well.

So, I think there's many outstanding issues in the investigation that they're trying to get to grips with right now.

A breakdown in the system

Josh Meyer
Los Angeles Times
There's a lot questions that need to be answered. A lot of the answers may come in his computer and the e-mails and the Web sites that he viewed.

GWEN IFILL: Representative Pete Hoekstra, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, was quoted today as saying that the system just broke down.

Is that what the system -- that is, the FBI, the CIA, the intelligence agencies who are investigating this now -- is that what they're coping with, trying to figure -- get to the bottom of whether that is true?

JOSH MEYER: Right. It is.

And I think that there's concerns that it might have broke down on several -- broken down on several levels, one of which is, you know, if these joint terrorism task forces did investigate Hasan and decided there was not enough information to proceed, did they hand off that information to the military for them to use it?

Did they properly, you know, get -- you know, ground all of the allegations and see if there was more that they could investigate? Did the Army itself adequately investigate all of the complaints that now seem to be coming forward about Major Hasan?

You know, there's a lot of -- as they said yesterday and today, there's a lot questions that need to be answered. A lot of the answers may come in his computer and the e-mails and the Web sites that he viewed there as well, too. So, there's a lot of work to do.

Red flags ignored

Dana Priest
Washington Post
I think it's mental health, but it's more the Army in general, that they didn't notice these oddities.

GWEN IFILL: Dana, one of the things that came out in this PowerPoint presentation was his concern or the flags that he was raising about whether Muslims should be allowed who felt that they were conflicted should be sent to war against other Muslims.

Do we know whether he himself tried to get out of the military, file status as conscientious objector, do something like that?

DANA PRIEST: Well, initial reports are, no, he didn't. He didn't file for conscientious objector status.

And as someone in the military pointed out, he was a physician, so he wouldn't have been in the line of fire. He wouldn't have been asked to kill or harm or capture fellow Muslims. So, I don't think that's the case.

And, you know, the other issue is, even though -- going back to what Josh was saying about the investigation, one of the tricky parts here is, you have to have some reason to start to look at someone's computer or intercept their e-mails or intercept their phone calls. In this case, though, they didn't even seem to ask someone like another chaplain or something to go talk to him, to say, you know, what is this about?

In fact, when he made this presentation, there's no indication that anybody was just more than miffed at him for having not done the assignment correctly, that they didn't turn around and call in the counterintelligence people that the Army has many, many of them, looking precisely for what they call insider threat.

GWEN IFILL: So, was this a breakdown in the mental health system?

DANA PRIEST: I don't -- I think it's mental health, but it's more the Army in general, that they didn't notice these oddities, and when he began to speak about a radical type of Islam, that someone should have taken him aside and said, you know, "Well, how do you feel about this?" and talk to him just like that.

Rather than launching some major investigation, perhaps they could have come up with more information like that initially.

GWEN IFILL: Josh Meyer, so this now falls in the hand of the military legal system, or is this going to be tried civilly?

JOSH MEYER: It's going to be tried in the military system. The FBI is still assisting in the investigation, but the Army Criminal Investigative Command is the lead agency in this.

And, together, they're both doing a lot of the forensic workup. One of the things that they said today that they're very concerned about is whether he was radicalized by people online, you know, even if he didn't have specific contact with them, just by viewing their Web sites and so forth, including by al-Awlaki's, to see if that sort of spurred him into action in some way.

GWEN IFILL: Josh Meyer of "The Los Angeles Times," Dana Priest of "The Washington Post," thank you both very much.

DANA PRIEST: Thank you.

JOSH MEYER: Thanks.