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Homeland Security and the Obama Administration

Connecting the dots.

5:00 PM, Feb 7, 2011 • By GARY SCHMITT
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When it comes to homeland security, President Obama’s first year in office was a nightmare. In September, Nidal Malik Hasan, a radicalized Army major, murdered 13 defense department employees at Ft. Hood, Texas. Shortly thereafter, Najibullah Zazi was arrested before he and compatriots were able to carry out an al Qaeda-inspired plot to conduct suicide bombings on the New York subway system. Then, on Christmas Day, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, at the direction of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, attempted to kill himself and the 278 passengers aboard a transatlantic flight as it approached Detroit. And to top things off, by the year's end, nearly four dozen Muslim-Americans had been indicted or arrested in connection with terrorist plots originating in the United States or aimed at targets in the U.S.

Homeland Security and the Obama Administration

If there is any good news for the administration, a recent report by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security has this last number dropping by more than half, to 20, in 2010, and with the number of Muslim-Americans attempting to carry out attacks at home dropping from 18 in 2009 to 10 in 2010. 

However, these numbers should provide cold comfort for those whose job it is to worry about homeland security. For one thing, the fact that there were ten Muslim-Americans involved in plots against domestic targets in 2010 is still almost double the number on average for the years 2002-2008. Moreover, some of the plots, if they had been carried out successfully, would have resulted in a large number of deaths and casualties, with the planned attack on the Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland and the attempted car-bombing in Times Square being the most notable examples. 

No less disturbing was the release last week of a report by Senators Joseph Lieberman and Susan Collins, chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, on why the government failed to prevent the deadly attack at Fort Hood. It's a virtual compendium of the still-existing fissures and flaws that mar the domestic counterterrorism effort, which, coming up on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 attacks, is a pointed reminder that there is still work to be done.

First off, the report makes it clear that there was no excuse for the Army to have not dealt with Major Hasan well before he went on his killing spree. Peers and superiors alike recognized his inability to disassociate his own views from those of Islamists and his obsession with issues such as whether Islam forbade American Muslim soldiers from taking part in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. His scholarship was seen for what it was: ideologically driven, with little or no professional content. He was, as an instructor and colleague noted, a “ticking time bomb.” But none of that prevented his superiors from giving him laudatory officer evaluations. As the Senate report pointedly puts it, “these evaluations bore no resemblance to the real Hasan.”

It is difficult not to conclude that various forms of “political correctness” were at work here. Pseudo-academic freedom, combined with worries by Hasan's superiors and advisors about being seen as insensitive to Islam, created a dynamic that led the Army to keep passing Hasan along, indeed even promoting him. Unfortunately, as the report pointedly notes, it's not clear in the aftermath of the shootings that this has been corrected. Neither the Pentagon's review nor Secretary Gates's subsequent directives implementing the recommendations of the review directly address the issue of Hasan's own Islamist views or the threat posed by Islamist radicalism more generally. “DoD's failure to address violent Islamist extremism by its name,” the senators suggest, means that the subject remains “taboo.”

No less worrisome is the report's account of the FBI's handling of the Hasan case. Here was an Muslim-American in the U.S. military who was in direct email contact with Yemen-based cleric Anwar al-Awlaki—someone well known in counterterrorism circles as being the intellectual godfather of previous domestic terrorism plots—but given only the most cursory of reviews by the FBI. How and why that happened is the meat of the senators' report.

First, there is the fact that while Major Hasan had more than one contact with al-Awlaki, the actual pattern of those contacts remained hidden because the FBI computers did not automatically link the communications together. Second, remarkably, neither of the two FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs) involved in looking at Hasan thought it necessary to alert the appropriate counterintelligence offices in the Department of Defense. Whether Major Hasan was a terrorist risk or not, he did hold a secret clearance and, as such, was someone whom the Army's security teams would have certainly wanted to investigate. But the JTTFs, which the FBI touts as being the nation's principal organ for information-sharing and operational coordination when it comes to domestic counterterrorism efforts, still appear to be tied to the longstanding FBI ethos in which other police and security entities are often just an afterthought.

The report also paints a picture of intra-bureau coordination that is not flattering. It was the San Diego JTTF that first raised questions about Hasan after the office learned of his communication with al-Awlaki.  But because the major was then stationed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in D.C., the Washington-area JTTF was passed the task of doing an initial investigation. What resulted was a review that the San Diego office knew to be less than adequate. But rather than challenge that review either by pushing for a more in-depth look by the Washington field office or by taking the matter up the chain to the National JTTF at FBI headquarters, the San Diego JTTF let the matter lie, leaving Senate investigators to wonder whether the traditional autonomy exercised by FBI offices, which can frustrate the kind of coordination needed to head off terrorist plots that might be national in scope, remains a problem.

However, the more fundamental problem in the FBI's handling of the Major Hasan case is that the initial investigation was almost wholly focused on whether there were any specific signs that he might be engaged in terrorist activities. Rather than digging deeper to see whether Major Hasan was a potential threat to be headed off (or, even more imaginatively, used to exploit his contacts with a major al Qaeda figure), the FBI was content to end its review when there was no evidence of criminal activity.

Since the attacks on 9/11, the FBI has struggled with developing within its ranks a domestic counterintelligence and counterterrorism cadre whose practices and culture focus on preventing acts of terrorism over and above achieving convictions after the fact. Undoubtedly, the FBI has made improvements on that front. One only has to total up the number of preemptive arrests the FBI has made over the past few years to see positive change. Nevertheless, if the Fort Hood shooting tells us anything, the FBI's effort remains a work in progress. Coming nearly a decade after 9/11, it seems fair to ask whether this is satisfactory and whether the country might be better off with a separate domestic security agency, like Britain's MI-5, rather than continuing to experiment with the FBI attempting to be both a world-class law-enforcement agency and an effective counterintelligence service at the same time.

Gary Schmitt is resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and editor of, and contributing author to, Safety, Liberty, and Islamist Terrorism: American and European Approaches to Domestic Counterterrorism (AEI Press, 2010).

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