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Ex-Coast Guard officer appeals sentence in alleged domestic terror plot

A sketch of Christopher Paul Hasson in court.

ART LIEN / WBAL TV

By ANN E. MARIMOW | The Washington Post | Published: March 12, 2021

WASHINGTON — A U.S. Coast Guard officer who kept a cache of firearms and a target list of prominent Democratic lawmakers and media personalities is appealing his prison sentence this week in a case that could complicate how the government handles accused domestic terrorists who have not acted on alleged violent plans.

Christopher Hasson, a former lieutenant arrested at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C., was convicted last year on firearms and drug charges. Prosecutors also convinced the sentencing judge in Maryland to ratchet up his punishment with a terrorism-related penalty, presenting evidence that Hasson had researched and planned an attack on U.S. officials in support of white nationalism.

Hasson's case at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit on Friday comes against a backdrop of renewed concern about the rise in domestic terrorism after white supremacists and others stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6. FBI Director Christopher Wray has said the threat is "metastasizing" throughout the country even as law enforcement experts point to legal hurdles to countering homegrown threats.

In Hasson's case, prosecutors successfully sought a terrorism-related increase in his punishment, which required the judge to make a finding that Hasson intended to carry out his alleged plot. Hasson was sentenced to 13 years in federal prison in January 2020.

At issue for the three-judge panel Friday is whether the sentencing add-on applies only to people convicted of an underlying federal crime of terrorism.

Hasson's attorneys say the firearm and drug charges against him had nothing to do with terrorism and that the district court judge disregarded the defense's risk assessment expert who found Hasson was not on "the path to intended violence," according to court filings. "Although he thought about violence, he did not make a choice or decision to commit violence."

Public defender Cullen Macbeth will also urge the court to throw out Hasson's conviction, arguing that the law criminalizing the possession of firearms by drug addicts is unconstitutionally vague. Hasson, a Marine Corps veteran with no history of violence, was addicted to the opioid Tramadol, which his lawyers said altered his mental state.

The government's case, led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Windom, relied on evidence that Hasson was inspired by racist murderers, had stockpiled weapons at his home in Silver Spring, Md., studied bombmaking and sniper manuals, and racist and antisemitic manifestos.

Investigators found a spreadsheet with references to targets such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats including then-Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and cable news hosts such as Joe Scarborough. Hasson had searched for Scarborough's home address and Googled "how can white people rise" and "civil war if trump impeached."

U.S. District Court Judge George Hazel sided with prosecutors in finding that the sentencing add-on for terrorism applies even when a defendant is not convicted of a "federal crime of terrorism" as long as the offense was meant to promote or further such a crime. The judge laid out a detailed timeline of Hasson's actions and concluded: "Certainly, if he had merely expressed unpleasant thoughts, without some indications of a plan to act and the weaponry, we wouldn't be here. But it's the weapons with his efforts that the Court sees in the documents that he was actually in the process of formulating a plan that makes this a case where the terrorism enhancement does apply."

Hasson's case comes amid debate about whether law enforcement officials have the necessary tools to investigate and charge suspected domestic terrorists.

Michael German, a former FBI agent specializing in domestic terrorism, said the government already has the power to deal with potential threats before they happen. Federal law includes a long list of offenses that qualify as "federal crimes of terrorism," including 51 that apply to domestic acts. In addition, hate crime laws can be used to target white supremacists.

"To the extent that the government saw a potential threat materializing, there were sufficient authorities for them to prevent those," said German, a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice's Liberty & National Security Program. "We don't want to empower the government to arrest us for crimes we might commit in the future because that would be far too easy to abuse."

Mary McCord, a former Justice Department national security official, shares concerns about transparency and government accountability, but thinks Congress should at least consider expanding the federal terrorism laws to apply to violent acts committed in the United States with firearms or vehicles when done to intimidate and coerce. That would apply to the stockpiling of firearms with intent to commit a mass shooting in furtherance of political or social ideologies.

There are existing laws that apply to acts of terrorism committed in the United States when they are done to advance the goals of an overseas terrorist organization, but not for mass shootings or car rammings when done for ideological purposes unrelated to a foreign terrorist organization.

"People like Hasson, who are amassing an arsenal of weapons to create a white ethnostate would be able to be charged with a crime of terrorism," said McCord, who is executive director at the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University Law Center.

In Hasson's case, investigators did "thwart the plot, but there is value in having a charge that more directly applies. It's a gap," McCord said.
 

This undated file image provided by the Maryland U.S. District Attorney's Office shows a photo of firearms and ammunition that was in the motion for detention pending trial in the case against Coast Guard lieutenant Christopher Hasson, accused of stockpiling guns and targeting Supreme Court justices, prominent Democrats and TV journalists.
MARYLAND U.S. DISTRICT ATTORNEY'S OFFICE/AP