Lessons from Fort Hood and Asking the Right Questions in Orlando

By Amy Zegart
Thursday, June 16, 2016, 5:30 PM

It is still the early days following the events of Orlando. It is possible that, as facts emerge, it will be clear that there was nothing more the FBI could have done to prevent the attack. However, there are lessons to be learned on from the 2009 attack in Fort Hood regarding which questions we should be asking. I have a forthcoming chapter in a book on insider threats (edited by Scott Sagan and Matt Bunn, Cornell Univ. Press) which examines where the FBI went wrong in preventing the Fort Hood attack and why. The Fort Hood case suggested that it would be useful to raise questions in the following four areas:

1. Left hand/right hand problems.

In 2009, debilitating coordination problems within the Bureau kept it from capitalizing on early intel about Nidal Hasan, a radicalizing Muslim Army officer who was emailing AQAP's Anwar al-Aulaqi nearly a year before the officer went on a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, firing more than 200 rounds and killing 13 people. In the email, Hasan asked whether a Muslim US solider who committed fratricide would be considered a martyr in the eyes of Islam. To the FBI's credit, the email "tripped the wire." An agent and analyst singled it out despite a crushing workload. The signal was found amidst the noise—but the FBI's coordination weaknesses then let it get lost again.

Two FBI field offices each thought the other was following the ongoing terrorist communications of Nidal Hasan with Aulaqi when neither one was. What's more, the FBI's National JTTF, which was supposed to ensure coordination, did not know about the Hasan case until after the attack.

Question for Orlando: Did the FBI's two investigations into Mateen in 2013-14 share information effectively or at all? Or were those investigations isolated in ways the kept the FBI from knowing what it knew and following potential threads?

2. There are investigations, and then there are investigations.

In the Fort Hood case, the FBI's "investigation" lasted a total of 4 hours, consisted of a database search, and was so flimsy that one special agent thought the subject of the investigation must be an FBI informant.

Question for Orlando: In Mateen's case, what exactly did the "investigations" entail?

3. Wrong people for the job.

In the Fort Hood case, the investigation into Hasan, which concluded he wasn't a terrorist threat, was conducted by someone on loan to the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force from the Defense Criminal Investigative Service. This person had no serious counter-terrorism experience. He was trained to ferret out waste, fraud and abuse. As a result, he missed some key red flags, concluding, for example, that Hasan must be okay because he was using his real name in his inquiries about fratricide with one of the most influential virtual spiritual sanctioners of terrorism in the world.

Question for Orlando: Who conducted the Mateen investigations? What was their background? Did they know what questions to ask? Did they have a strategic understanding of the terrorist threat and what a radicalizing lone wolf might look like?

4. Law enforcement ain’t intelligence.

In Fort Hood, the FBI approached the investigation of Nidal Hasan through a law enforcement lens, not an intelligence lens. The investigation asked whether Nidal Hasan was a current terrorist danger, not a gathering one. In the email closing the case, the investigator wrote that the FBI field office "does not currently assess Hasan to be involved in terrorist activities." What it should have asked was whether Hasan might in the future be involved in terrorist activities, whether his relationship with Aulaqi might yield important information about radicalization more generally or Hasan more specifically. The FBI missed the threat because it stopped looking too soon. The FBI was not collecting intelligence. It was hunting a suspected criminal.

Question for Orlando: Was this also the case for the Mateen investigations?