WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. intelligence agencies learned an Army psychiatrist contacted an Islamist sympathetic to al Qaeda and they relayed the information to authorities before the man allegedly went on a shooting spree that killed 13 people in Texas last week, U.S. officials said on Monday.
While the agencies were monitoring contacts by Anwar al-Awlaki, a fiery, anti-American cleric in Yemen who sympathized with al Qaeda, they came across some communications late last year with the shooting suspect, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, U.S. government officials said.
They said the information was given to federal authorities who determined that Hasan’s writings were largely consistent with his academic work, offering no hint that he was planning an attack or was following orders from anyone.
Authorities have decided to charge Hasan, a U.S.-born Muslim of Palestinian descent, in a military court following Thursday’s shooting at the Fort Hood Army post where 30 others were also wounded, two of the government officials said.
With FBI and military officials briefing senior lawmakers late on Monday and other comments by various officials, it appeared that different parts of the government were angling to avoid being blamed for having failed to prevent the shooting.
One intelligence official said, “There’s no sign at this point that the CIA had collected information relevant to this case and then simply sat on it.”
The U.S. officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive and ongoing nature of the investigation.
In a letter to Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair and the heads of the FBI, CIA and National Security Agency, Representative Pete Hoekstra, the senior Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, asked them to preserve the information the agencies have on Hasan.
“I believe members of the full committee on a bipartisan basis will want to scrutinize the intelligence relevant to this attack, what the agencies in possession of that intelligence did with it, who was and wasn’t informed and why, and what steps America’s intelligence agencies are taking in light of what they know,” Hoekstra said in a statement.
Blair’s office said he was in communication with lawmakers and that he would ensure there was a full accounting.
Hoekstra’s remark was reminiscent of questions asked after the September 11 attacks, when there was deep soul-searching and recrimination in Washington over how U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies failed to prevent the hijacked plane attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Investigators tried to interview Hasan at the military hospital on Sunday where he was recovering from gunshots that subdued him during his attack, but he invoked his right to speak to a lawyer, the government officials said.
They declined to speculate about Hasan’s possible motive.
Hasan, 39, spent years counseling severely wounded soldiers at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, many of whom had lost limbs fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Washington Post reported in Tuesday editions that Hasan as a psychiatric resident at Walter Reed warned Army doctors during a presentation in 2007 that to avoid “adverse events” the military should allow Muslim soldiers to be released as conscientious objectors.
Hasan was supposed to make a presentation on a medical topic but instead lectured on Islam, suicide bombers and the threats the military could encounter from Muslims conflicted about fighting in Iran and Afghanistan, the Post reported, citing a copy of the presentation obtained by the paper.
Hasan was transferred to Fort Hood in April and was to have been deployed to Afghanistan, where the U.S. military is engaged in an increasingly bloody war against Taliban and al Qaeda fighters.
The shooting spree took place at Fort Hood’s crowded Soldiers Readiness Processing Center, where U.S. troops were getting medical checkups before deploying abroad.
The 10 to 20 communications between Hasan and the cleric continued into 2009. That prompted authorities to look into Hasan, the officials said. But they decided the matter did not warrant an investigation.
They declined to provide further details of that review, with whom they spoke or say who was informed about the matter.
In August 2009, Hasan purchased two firearms that he used to carry out the attack, but the government officials said that U.S. law does not permit them to connect that purchase information with the other intelligence they had.
Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and JoAnne Allen, Editing by Philip Barbara and Peter Cooney