The new unit created by the Obama administration to interrogate the highest-value terrorism targets is unlikely to play a role in the case of the highest-profile new potential terrorist target in U.S. custody: Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the alleged Fort Hood shooter.
The director of the new interrogation unit, FBI Special Agent Andrew McCabe — who has not been previously identified in the press as the leader of the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG) — referred all questions about the Hasan case to the FBI’s public affairs office and said he would not be able to elaborate on HIG operations beyond an August statement by Attorney General Eric Holder announcing the group’s creation. Still, it is unlikely that the HIG would interview Hasan. Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the Justice Department’s national security division, clarified that the new group is mandated to operate “overseas only.”
[Security1] The White House, Justice Department and intelligence community created the HIG as the result of a months-long review of interrogation policy to determine effective means of eliciting information from important captured terrorists or terrorist suspects without violating U.S. laws or jeopardizing potential prosecutions. As first reported by TWI in June, the new group placed elements from the FBI in charge of interrogations, stripping the CIA of the lead role, although the HIG itself is intended to include representatives of the FBI, CIA and Defense Department. Its architects describe its targets as the highest echelon of extremists: Hakimullah Mahsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, for instance, or Osama bin Laden himself.
It is not clear whether Hasan ought to be considered a terrorist, and most evidence to date suggests he is better understood as a criminal suspect. An inquiry that began shortly after he allegedly shot and killed 14 people at Fort Hood on Nov. 7 has yet to determine any substantive links to extremist organizations, and reportedly indicates that he acted alone. An FBI spokeswoman, Denise Ballew, declined to comment, and referred all questions about Hasan to the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigation Division, which is leading the Hasan inquiry with FBI support. Spokespeople for the Criminal Investigation Division did not return phone messages.
But an al-Qaeda affiliated cleric now based in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaqi, has confirmed to The Washington Post that he communicated with Hasan, and Army psychiatrist, repeatedly before the shooting occurred. While Hasan is convalescing from wounds sustained when police officers stopped the attack, he might shed light on the circumstances that lead a very small minority of radicalized American Muslims to commit acts of extremism and even seek to connect with the broader terrorist infrastructure, which the counterterrorism community refers to as the “self-starter” or “lone-wolf” problem.
In a Senate hearing on Thursday, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) called the shooting a “homegrown terrorist attack,” a point not entirely accepted by his panel’s witnesses. Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert with the Rand Corporation, testified that while “radicalization and recruitment to terrorism is occurring in the United States and is a security concern,” the small handful of examples of such behavior meant that American Muslim communities are “overwhelmingly unsympathetic to terrorist appeals,” a point Lieberman endorsed.
Individuals close to the HIG had mixed perspectives about whether it should play any role with Hasan. None agreed to speak for attribution, citing both the ongoing investigation into Hasan’s case and the secrecy surrounding the Obama administration’s new interrogation unit. “I can think of a lot of uses I could make of a HIG team while waiting for someone to be captured in Afghanistan,” said one such individual. “There’s no reason the HIG couldn’t be used domestically. There’s a ban on the CIA doing things in country, so they might just have to use FBI interrogators or interviewers. But aside from that I don’t see any other issues.”
A U.S. official involved with the establishment of the HIG said that it remained an open question whether Hasan is a “lone wolf with mental pathology” or someone who “latched onto extremist ideology and influence” like al-Awlaqi. As a result, there is insufficient evidentiary basis for involving the HIG, since it is unclear what actual information Hasan might have that could illuminate aspects of the broader terrorist puzzle. “I also have not seen anything that indicates known or suspected outside influence — other than firebrand al-Awlaqi’s call-to-arms, which is dangerous enough in itself — whether non-state actor or otherwise” is involved in the Hasan case, the official said.
A former U.S. counterterrorism official agreed: “The HIG is for high-value detainees and he’s not a high-vale detainee. He’s a criminal who did a heinous act.” The ex-official went on to say that if information emerged changing that picture, Army CID and FBI investigators have “a process to share information with behavioral analysis groups, [and] share with the HIG, to be careful to watch for other possible wackos.”
There are a number of investigations open into Hasan aside from the main CID-FBI probe. On Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced the Pentagon would undertake its own review of the Hasan case to determine if its personnel missed warning signs leading to Hasan’s attack that might have prevented it. The intelligence community is reviewing what it knew about Hasan’s communications with al-Awlaqi or other extremists. Late last week, President Obama directed all relevant agencies to turn over information about those communications to his principle White House counterterrorism and homeland security adviser, John Brennan — who, coincidentally, is also the White House liaison with the HIG.