Because it was worried about “political correctness,” the FBI held off investigating Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan’s suspected ties to Islamic extremists before the 2009 massacre at Fort Hood, Tex., in which Hasan is accused of killing 13 people, according to a Texas member of Congress.
A review of the events leading up to the attack shows that the FBI was worried about the sensitive nature of an investigation into an American Muslim serving in the American military, Rep. Michael McCaul told the Associated Press on Wednesday after he was briefed on the review, led by former FBI Director William Webster at the request of current Director Robert Mueller.
“It shows you the length of the political correctness stuff going on,” McCaul told the A.P. in an account printed in Thursday’s Washington Post.
A central issue in the Hasan case is whether the FBI should have moved sooner to investigate Hasan after members of the agency’s anti-terrorism task forces learned in December 2008 — almost a year before the Fort Hood killings — that he had been in touch with Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen and al-Qaeda propagandist then operating out of Yemen.
Awlaki was a former San Diego resident who had been under scrutiny for ties to 9/11 hijackers, two of whom intersected with him in the San Diego area and later worshiped at a northern Virginia mosque where Awlaki was then preaching.
Awlaki had been a familiar figure for years, largely because he created a website that churned out extremist, anti-Western views urging attacks against the West. After the Fort Hood attacks, it was revealed that Awlaki and Nasan had exchanged emails, and that Awlaki praised Hasan as a hero after the bloodshed.
Well before the Fort Hood killings, Washington FBI officials declined to interview Hasan’s superiors in the Defense Department. The FBI officials had reasoned that Hasan’s communications with Awlaki were not inappropriate for a military psychiatrist who was, in fact, writing a research paper about the effects of combat in Iraw and Afghanistan, according to the A.P.
The A.P. said neither Webster nor the FBI responded to requests for comment. The agency is expected to release Webster’s findings soon.
Regardless of the findings, the debate over how to balance the needs of national security against individual liberties is certain to continue. So, too, will assertions that government investigators and security officials sometimes succumb to “political correctness.” Those charges will be reignited whenever, say, an old woman from Jersey City and her 10-year-old granddaughter are patted down in an airport while a nervous-looking man with explosives in his shoes is able to board an airliner.
But clarity is rare on these issues. It was only after the Awlaki-Hasan connection emerged that the media began to understand that Awlaki was a threat. What had obscured the issue? He had denounced the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as The New York Times noted last September, and so some news articles had portrayed him as only gradually becoming radicalized, while others in law enforcement and elsewhere believed the denunciation of the 9/11 attacks was a ruse.
Later Awlaki was killed in Yemen by a drone strike orchestrated by the United States. And while many people could rejoice over the removal of the Al Qaeda plotter, he was an American citizen, executed by the country of his birth without trial — facts that are troubling even if the drone strike was justifiable.
Nonetheless, the failure to grasp early on that maybe Awlaki had more sinister motives also helps fuel paranoia among some conservatives on Capitol Hill that the real “threat” isn’t clearly perceived. And that perception can result in overreach in the other direction.
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and several other Republican House members recently wrote the inspectors general of the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice and State, plus the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, asserting that the Muslim Brotherhood has made “deep penetration” of the United States government and asking for investigations into whether it is influencing President Barack Obama’s administration.
The Republicans’ letter singled out Huma Abedin, a deputy chief of staff for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and asserts that some of Abedin’s relatives are linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, which recently came to power in Egypt. Abedin is a practicing Muslim who was born in Michigan (both parents were educators) and spent much of her childhood in Saudi Arabia.
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim elected to Congress, said that if Bachmann and her allies have such important and sensitive information, she should reveal it to the proper authorities rather than “whipping up fear and hysteria.” Bachmann wrote a long letter to Ellison in which she said some of her views have been distorted.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) defended Abedin, whom he described as a warm person and dedicated public servant, in a Senate floor speech on Wednesday hailed by liberal commentators as a principled stand.
“These sinister accusations rest solely on a few unspecified and unsubstantiated associations of members of Huma’s family, none of which have been shown to harm or threaten the United States in any way,” McCain said. “These attacks on Huma have no logic, no basis and no merit. And they need to stop now.”
In 2008, McCain defended Obama, his opponent, in an incident that brought him wide praise. At a campaign event, a woman said she couldn’t trust Obama because he was an Arab. “No, ma’am,” McCain said, taking the microphone from her. “He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have fundamental disagreements with.”
It was Obama, of course, who approved both the assassination of Osama bin Laden as well as the drone strike that killed Awlaki. But that hasn’t stopped the campaign of presumptive GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney from taking the line that Obama is “foreign” and “not an American” – attacks that have been denounced as thinly veiled attempts to tap into the fears of white voters like the woman in 2008 who told McCain Obama is an “Arab.”