The Fort Hood attack was an intelligence failure, just like 9/11 and so many others before. In retrospect, it all seems obvious – these kinds of failures always do. It is easy to blame bureaucratic inertia, but it is also unfair. Large organizations need procedures to function. Priorities must be set and decisions have to be made and implemented.
Examining the system failure is revealing, both about the challenges in preventing these kinds of tragedies but also in how they reveal some of our society’s core values.
Army: Major Problems
It is now clear that Major Hasan’s colleagues were concerned about his actions and behavior. But there were limits to what they could do about. Firing an Army Major is a very big deal. It is now clear that Hasan’s colleagues had doubts about his commitment to the military and about his work habits. But, informally, they judged that he was not dangerous. Consider the situation from their point of view. First, Hasan was a psychiatrist – it is understandable that Hasan’s colleagues would assume that an individual practicing a profession rooted caring, healing, and empathy would not be likely to become a murderer (Hannibal Lector is a fictional character.) But also consider the bureaucratic challenges. Hasan’s relatives reported that when Hasan made informal inquiries about leaving the Army:
They told him that he would be allowed out only if Rumsfeld himself O.K.’d it..This may be a slight exaggeration, but removing Hasan would certainly have required authorization from people several levels higher in the chain of command – and the bases for doing so were not evident. What was clear was that Hasan was odd and said disturbing things and that he did not appear devoted to the job and the Army. Virtually every bureaucracy ends up with at least a few such characters. Usually they are slowly eased out. To fire them, without clear evidence of criminal activity, is much harder. It would have taken enormous amounts of time and since Hassan was a Major, General officers would need to have been involved. There were obvious incentives for easing Hasan out, rather than attempting to dismiss him.
No doubt, Hasan’s colleagues are no wishing that they had pursued this process nonetheless and in the future officers faced with comparable situations undoubtedly will do whatever is necessary to remove individuals. But the organizational procedures that make it difficult to remove officers exist to protect them from the arbitrary whims of their superiors. This reflects our cultural belief in meritocracy over patronage and it is a value that has served us well.
FBI: By the Book
Hasan had also garnered the attention of the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF.) Here too, necessary organizational procedures failed to make the crucial connection. The FBI has to prioritize threats – the agency lacks the resources to track down every rumor and case of idle chatter (and an agency capable and mandated to do so would end up resembling STASI or the KGB.) This article from NPR’s All Things Considered gives some insight into the FBI’s criteria – the essence is “The closer the link to al-Qaida, the more serious the plot.” There are three levels, the people directly linked to al-Qaida (travel to Pakistan for training followed up by regular communications is seen as a big red flag.) The second level threats are plots linked to al-Qaida affiliates. The third level threats are the “angry young men” that are often radicalized on the Internet. Hasan would have been a “level three” except that he was a bit older then the usual recruits and his exchanges with radical cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi did not appear to be terribly angry. The FBI determined that he was not a threat.
The fact that the JTTF became aware of Hassan’s email exchange indicates what an enormous volume of material they are required to analyze. Priorities have to be set. Had the analysts gone one step further and spoken to Hasan’s colleagues there is a chance that the dots would have been connected. But the JTTF’s judgment was not an irrational one. Future instances of military personnel corresponding with radical Islamists will undoubtedly be bright red flags in the future. Organizations (like Generals) always prepare for the last crisis. Just as a 9/11-type plot will probably not be successful in the future, it is probable that the appropriate agencies will be able to head off tragedies like the Fort Hood murders in the future.
The question of what is next remains.