Intelligence sharing is a bit like a game of hot potato: If you get stuck with it, you’ll get burned.
FBI officials in San Diego recently caught just such a hot potato when they intercepted e-mails between Maj. Nidal Hasan, the accused Fort Hood shooter, and a radical former San Diego imam named Anwar al-Awlaki.
These intercepts are among the government’s biggest secrets. Yet, at the same time, it would be surprising if Hasan and Nidal didn’t know that their communications were likely to be intercepted.
Awlaki had been an FBI counter-terrorism target for years. As an imam in San Diego in 2000, Awlaki served as a “spiritual advisor” to three 9/11 hijackers.
The FBI has asked him numerous times about his contacts with the hijackers, including when agents visited him in 2007 in a Yemeni prison. The intercepts were made about a year after he got out of prison. Today, he is said to be hiding in Yemen.
As for Hasan, he was a psychiatrist in the military. His contacts with Awlaki were viewed as consistent with some research he was conducting as a psychiatric resident at the U.S. Army’s Walter Reed Medical Center. A 2007 slideshow he gave at Walter Reed was titled “The Koranic World View As It Relates to Muslims in the U.S. Military.”
As many as 20 e-mails between Hasan and Awlaki were intercepted by the San Diego Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) between December 2008 and May 2009. The communications were deemed “consistent with research being conducted by Major Hasan in his position as a psychiatrist at the Walter Reed Medical Center,” the FBI says.
After the shooting that killed 13 people, a blog post on Aulaki’s website praised Hasan as a “hero.”
The communications between Awlaki and Hasan were never shared with the Defense Department, even though a member of the Defense Criminal Investigative Service was on the multi-agency San Diego JTTF.
CIA Director William Webster is conducting a review to find out what happened. According to The Washington Post, Webster will have the authority to make recommendations about possible changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which governs the highly sensitive communications intercepts at issue.
Awlaki is particularly troublesome for investigators because he is a U.S. citizen, born in New Mexico in 1971. As a result of that circumstance, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act required the JTTF to apply for a court order of surveillance at the secret FISA court or a certification from the U.S. attorney general. Investigators were required to present evidence that Awlaki was “an agent of a foreign power, or an officer or employee of a foreign power.”
Al-Qaida qualifies as a foreign power, and Charles Allen, a former CIA official and US Undersecretary of Homeland Security for Intelligence and Analysis, declared last year that Awlaki was part of al-Qaida’s reach into the U.S. homeland.
So, they got a warrant. Great. What good is such intelligence if you don’t use it?
In Hasan’s case, an investigator and a supervisor concluded that Hasan was not involved in terrorist activities or planning.
Further dissemination of the information “was neither sought nor authorized.” In plain English, the JTTF FBI supervisor wouldn’t let the folks from the Defense Department on his task force tell their commanders about the e-mails.
Officials in San Diego told Voice of San Diego’s Kelly Thornton that their counterparts in Washington are to blame:
One federal source described the probe this way: “Webster is going to investigate the Fort Hood guy and al-Aulaqi and whether the FBI screwed up. They’re saying San Diego failed to communicate the e-mails — but San Diego pestered the shit out of them, sending e-mails multiple times. The Washington field office didn’t do anything on it.”
The Washington Post reported Dec. 1 that members of Congress have identified “at least two troubling e-mails” that were intercepted by the San Diego FBI but not shared with Washington.
In a tit-for-tat battle, Thornton’s anonymous San Diego sources responded by saying that everything was fully communicated to Washington, which had “computer access” to everything San Diego had.
The Voice of San Diego, however, leaves out crucial background found in reports by the 9/11 Commission and Congressional Joint Inquiry on 9/11:
In June 1999, the FBI in San Diego investigated Awlaki after learning that he may have been contacted by a man who bought a satellite phone bin Laden used in the 1990s.
During its investigation, FBI learned that Awlaki knew individuals from the Holy Land Foundation and others involved in raising money for the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas. Sources alleged that Awlaki had other extremist connections.
In early 2000, Awlaki was visited by a subject of a Los Angeles FBI investigation closely associated with Blind Sheikh [Omar Abdel] Rahman.
Around the time Awlaki was holding closed door meetings in San Diego with two of the hijackers, the FBI closed its investigation, stating “the imam … does not meet the criterion for [further] investigation.”
It wouldn’t be the first time that the FBI in San Diego misjudged Awlaki. Then again, no one bothered to tell the FBI in San Diego about two of the 9/11 hijackers whom the CIA had tracked from Bangkok to Los Angeles in 2000 until it was too late.