Investigating National Security Personnel in the Post-Nidal Hasan Era

Three years and one day before FBI briefed DNI Clapper about the questionable email practices of David Petraeus, and less than three years before FBI alerted Leon Panetta to John Allen’s perhaps less questionable email practices, an Army officer who had been the subject of a 6-month investigation into his questionable emails killed 13 people and wounded another 29 at Fort Hood, TX.

While a number of people are criticizing the FBI (rightly, in the case of the agent who reportedly made this investigation his or her own personal project) for being out of control in the investigation that started with Jill Kelley’s email, I’d like to put the FBI’s decision to inform Petraeus’ and Allen’s superiors about their emails in the context of the failure to stop Nidal Hasan.

I don’t mean to suggest that Petraeus and Allen’s smutty emails to some beautiful middle aged housewives equate to an Army psychiatrist writing a radical anti-American cleric. At least given what we know, there were far more serious red flags in Hasan’s emails to Anwar al-Awlaki than there were in Petraeus’ love notes to Paula Broadwell (though Petraeus’ use of counter-surveillance techniques would, by themselves, be a red flag).

But the point is–and one key lesson of the failure to stop Hasan–is that the FBI can’t always know how important inappropriate email contacts are without talking to a person’s superiors. If they had done with Hasan what they did here–inform the officer’s superiors after concluding no criminal behavior had taken place (which is what they concluded with Hasan)–they might have learned of the more troubling context behind the emails.

Besides, the most damaging leak, today’s stories revealing a huge chunk of Allen emails that may be flirtatious but in no way problematic, came from a senior US defense official, not the FBI. There were surely more appropriate ways to delay Allen’s confirmation hearing later this week, but that decision was presumably DOD’s, not FBI’s.

Carrie Johnson captures some of the other disclosure issues FBI faced. But the question as to why FBI informed Clapper and Panetta can be answered, IMO, by pointing to lessons learned with the Nidal Hasan case. FBI almost certainly had no reason to doubt Petraeus and Allen. But I don’t blame FBI for not wanting to make the final decisions about how this email behavior affected the Generals’ fitness to command.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

5 replies
  1. Brindle says:

    Typo?—-Don’t you mean Petraeus?

    “I don’t mean to suggest that Panetta and Allen’s smutty emails to some beautiful middle aged housewives….”

  2. PollyUSA says:

    Looks llke the Allen emails didn’t come from the FBI investigation

    Chuck Todd [email protected]
    So both WH and DoJ tell NBC that Allen email issues were discovered during the NATO vetting process.

    Chuck Todd [email protected]
    Strong denial from Gen. Allen; says no affair. He notes many of them were between Allen’s wife and Kelley; He was cc’d.

  3. orionatl says:

    this a thoughtful essay.

    my too succinct to be useful comments are:

    – gov’t security depts like fbi and cia and dls routinely screw up. then, just as routinely they over-react (under congressional prodding or with congressional legislation). this happens over and over again. the inevitably excessive remedy is not taken out of the public interest, but out of the institution’s desire to avoid embarrassment and criticism.

    – just as when you drone-kill too many leaders in an insurrection, you may end up with a paucity of leaders at some future less conflicted time,

    so too, if you review the private lives of high-level leaders too closely, you may end up disqualifying a number of very talented leaders.

    to whit :

    – fd roosevelt

    – dwight eisenhower

    – john kennedy

    – lyndon johnson

    – bill clinton

    – george h. w. bush

    these are just the presidents. it is inconceivabl there are not lots of historical example involving generals (like ike) or supremely talented politicians (like lbj) before they were prez.

    how much is security or avoidance of scandal worth?

    how much is protecting privacy worth, even the sexual privacy of security vip’s?

    in my view, way too much weight has been given to “security” .

  4. orionatl says:

    it is also the case, in my view, that hassan was mentally ill. i don’t see how one can use any other term for an individual that guns down people he does not know.

    thus, the snooping, over-hearing, screening then, by a potentially severely intrusive gov’t agency, should be limited to markers for mental illness, asocial behavior, violence. consider the fbi’s refusal, on available new info, to deal with unstable individual behavior that led them to fail to protect the kansas abortion doctor from assassination.

    i’d bet the secret service has been into this area for decades and would have some pointers for the fbi’s clumsy all-in-the-pool breech of individual privacy.

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