On Thursday, a federal judge in Maryland ruled that a Coast Guard lieutenant accused of plotting a domestic terror attack should be released from detention.
The suspected white supremacist allegedly gathered numerous guns and tactical gear – and reportedly planned to target Democratic politicians, Supreme Court justices and journalists. Despite the ruling, the judge said he had “grave concerns” about the suspect’s actions.
To get a better sense of what happens next and how the US legal system handles domestic terror threats, I reached out to CNN law enforcement analyst and former FBI special agent Josh Campbell.
Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
Chris Cillizza: Let’s start here: Who is Christopher Hasson and what, specifically, is he charged with?
Josh Campbell: The defendant is a lieutenant in the United States Coast Guard who was arrested on gun and drug charges. Authorities believe he was planning to conduct a mass killing after discovering a “hit list” that contained the names of several prominent Democratic politicians and members of the news media, including CNN.
This guy is a real piece of work. He went so far as to stockpile steroids and human growth hormones in order to increase his ability to conduct an attack. Although his writings signal obvious mental health issues – he claimed “I am dreaming of a way to kill almost every last person on earth” – that makes him no less dangerous. Law enforcement believes he may have been inspired by a white supremacist in Norway who killed 77 people in 2011.
Cillizza: He was charged with planning an act of domestic terrorism. Why was he not charged with, uh, domestic terrorism?
Campbell: Put simply, law enforcement is handcuffed when it comes to how they handle extremism here at home. For one, there is no domestic terrorism law that makes such activity a federal crime. Investigators have to rely on other statutes, such as weapons violations, in order to prosecute domestic terrorists. The FBI Agents Association, a private organization that represents the organization’s approximately 13,000 special agents, has been very vocal about the need for new legislation that would equip law enforcement with the tools needed to stop these threats.
To illustrate how ridiculous the current situation is, when I was in the FBI investigating people inspired by international terrorist groups like ISIS and al Qaeda, the mere association with those groups was enough to land someone behind bars.
Not so with domestic terrorism. Even if someone is politically motivated to cause violence due to their right- or left-wing extremist views, that’s not enough to get them off the street. Opponents to such a law claim it might infringe on free speech. The issue appears to be a political third rail that few in Congress actually want to touch.
Cillizza: He WAS indicted on weapons and drug charges. So, why did the judge say he might be released?
Campbell: This is a question that only the judge can and must answer. Many of us who served careers in national security are simply stupefied by the idea that such a dangerous person would be allowed free pending his trial. The judge claimed the government had not successfully met a standard to warrant the defendant’s continued detention, while at the same time insisting the court had “grave concerns” about the suspect’s actions.
Now to be fair, the judge may have simply felt boxed in by the lack of a federal domestic terrorism statute. This may surprise some, but merely attempting to kill someone does not automatically rise to the level of a federal crime. There has to be some other characteristic involved to reach a federal nexus, such as threatening a government official. We will have to wait and see whether prosecutors file additional charges, which would seem warranted here as the defendant’s hit list included several elected Democratic officials.
Cillizza: What’s next? Is Hasson free to go?
Campbell: He’s not quite free to go, but that could change. The judge will hear from the defendant’s attorney at a future hearing regarding options for possible supervised released and home confinement. The Justice Department is fighting the move.
“He’s got to have a whole lot of supervision,” the judge said this week. “Somebody who’s got eyes and ears on him like nobody’s business.”
However, physical or electronic monitoring of the defendant will give little comfort to those on his target list. It simply boggles the mind that an admitted white supremacist who amassed weapons and wanted to kill people would be allowed to go free while he awaits prosecution. It is sickening to even imagine what he might do between now and when he goes to trial.
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “The Hasson case reveals ________ about how the government treats incidents of domestic terrorism.” Now, explain.
Campbell: “The Hasson case reveals a shocking reality about how the government treats incidents of domestic terrorism.”
This case illustrates a divide between law enforcement and elected politicians. A domestic terrorism statute would better enable authorities to identify and neutralize deadly threats right here at home. It would also enable them to confine a ticking time bomb like Hasson, who clearly poses a threat to the community. However, thus far we have not seen an overwhelming amount of political will by Congress or the White House to truly eradicate those who act on their political beliefs with violence.