The FBI might have missed important and troubling clues about the behavior of Maj. Nidal Hasan, the alleged Fort Hood shooter, due to a simple oversight: FBI agents did not ask Hasan's supervisors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center for the most relevant information from a filing cabinet.
Although Hasan had come to the attention of both Army and FBI officials long before he was transferred to Fort Hood this past summer, neither side connected the dots, partly because of plain old human error.
Mike German, an FBI agent for 16 years who is now at the American Civil Liberties Union, is philosophical about the missed opportunity. Hasan allegedly killed 13 people in a mass shooting at Fort Hood on Nov. 5. Even the best investigation, German says, might not have been able to forecast the actions Hasan is accused of taking.
"Thankfully, that's a very rare event," German says of the Fort Hood shootings. "Here's the problem: It's very hard to predict the future."
NPR has reconstructed what officials in the FBI and Army did or didn't do over the past year with regard to Hasan. FBI and Army spokesmen didn't return NPR's calls, so this report is based on interviews with former FBI officials and sources at Walter Reed, and the military's medical school. Hasan trained at both of those places before he went to Fort Hood. The evidence suggests that what follows is what likely happened.
It's December 2008. U.S. spy agencies are keeping track of the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who used to preach in Virginia but is now living in Yemen. Electronic intercepts reveal that Awlaki and Hasan are trading e-mails. So they send a report about it to the Joint Terrorism Task Force in the Washington, D.C., area. Most likely, a supervisor hands it to an FBI agent.
"He'd probably say, 'Check it out, see what you find.' That's probably about it," says Marion Bowman, one of the top officials at the FBI in charge of national security until a few years ago.
Bowman says that at this point, the FBI agent would have done what's called an assessment. The agent might have checked out Hasan in court records and other public government files. Hasan's driving record would have been pulled.
"Their primary reason would be to get a picture," Bowman says.
And then the FBI agent would have probably picked up the phone and called Walter Reed.
A Troubling File At Walter Reed
And at this point, let's freeze that frame for a moment: The FBI agent is reaching for the phone.
And let's go to Walter Reed. As NPR previously reported, Hasan's boss wrote a memo that harshly criticized Hasan.
Dr. Scott Moran, the chief of psychiatric residents at Walter Reed, said in that memo that Hasan had poor judgment and was unprofessional. Some colleagues had been troubled by a lecture Hasan gave about Islam. They felt that he was telling them that nonbelievers like them should go to hell on Earth. Hasan showed PowerPoint slides to back it up. Some supervisors had even wondered if Hasan might be psychotic. Much of this information, including the Islamic lecture, was in Hasan's training file. Every resident has a training file, a thick folder that's stored behind a secretary's desk at Walter Reed.
Now, let's go back to the FBI agent. He calls Walter Reed, but he doesn't get any of this information in the training file.
"I'm not surprised," Bowman says. "I'm not surprised at all."
The Wrong File
Bowman says here's what likely happened. It's routine: The agent calls Walter Reed's security office. Then a security officer calls the commander's office. And somebody pulls Hasan's personnel file, not the training file. They tell the FBI agent what's in the personnel file.
But sources at Walter Reed say personnel files in the military are pretty basic: rank, awards, military history. They say the negative details about Hasan were in his separate training file. But the FBI agent didn't meet with Hasan's supervisors or ask anybody at Walter Reed about the training file, according to sources. Bowman says if the agent had done that, things might have been different.
That agent, says Bowman, might have gone to an FBI supervisor and said, " 'You know, we may have some problems here. I don't know if it's a fundamentalist problem — meaning Muslim fundamentalist — or we might have a danger problem. I think we need to open a case.' "
Bowman says you need to put this in context: Each day, the FBI receives more than 100 potential threats to national security. They only have a few dozen agents to check them out. That means only a few hours to decide whether someone is harmless or a potential threat.
And what about the psychiatrists at Walter Reed — why didn't they call the FBI? The psychiatrists say that the Army doesn't train them to spot potential killers. It trains them to heal people.