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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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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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