Work computer use alerted Coast Guard to lieutenant’s terror plans, prosecutors say
By LYNH BUI, DAN LAMOTHE AND MICHAEL E. MILLER | The Washington Post | Published: February 21, 2019
GREENBELT, Md. — The U.S. Coast Guard lieutenant spent hours on end planning a wide-scale domestic terrorist attack, even logging in at his work computer on the job at headquarters to study the manifestos and heinous paths of mass shooters, prosecutors say. He researched how to carry out sniper attacks, they contend, and whether rifle scopes were illegal. And all the while, investigators assert, he was amassing a cache of weapons as he ruminated about attacks on politicians and journalists.
But Christopher Hasson was not an isolated figure, according to a contractor who worked with him. The 49-year-old lieutenant with more than two decades in the Coast Guard was part of a project to replace some aging cutters in the fleet, tasks that regularly required interacting with civilians and military officials at meetings and on travel.
"I don't remember him saying anything that was crazy," said Adam Stolzberg, a contractor who worked at headquarters and was in meetings with Hasson a couple of times a month. Politics never came up, Stolzberg said.
It was only after Hasson's arrest last Friday at his workplace that the chilling plans prosecutors assert he was crafting became apparent, detected by an internal Coast Guard program that watches for any "insider threat."
The program identified suspicious computer activity tied to Hasson, prompting the agency's investigative service to launch an investigation last fall, said Lt. Cmdr. Scott McBride, a service spokesman.
Hasson was arrested on gun and drug charges after officials with the Coast Guard Investigative Service and agents with the FBI in Baltimore began probing activities that prosecutors said in court were linked to what they described as Hasson's white-nationalist views. Federal law enforcement officials seized a stockpile of guns and ammunition from his basement apartment in the Maryland suburbs near Washington in the far east side of Silver Spring, Maryland, in Montgomery County.
"The sheer number and force of the weapons recovered from Mr. Hasson's residence in this case, coupled with the disturbing nature of his writings, appear to reflect a very significant threat to the safety of our community, particularly given the position of trust that Mr. Hasson held with the United States government," U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland Robert Hur said Thursday after a hearing in which Hasson was ordered detained.
Prosecutors and Hasson's federal public defender sparred over whether it was appropriate to jail him after an arrest for gun and drug charges but no terrorism-related counts.
The judge, Charles Day, said that it is unusual to detain a defendant based on the charges Hasson was facing and that the issue at hand is "all about the defendant's state of mind and intentions."
Hasson's federal public defender, Julie Stelzig, said the government's court filings are a "histrionic characterization of Mr. Hasson" and there was "no actual indication of any plan." She said that Hasson had no prior record and that the number of weapons he had were "modest at best" for average gun collectors.
"It's not a crime to think negative thoughts," Stelzig said of the writings the government points to as evidence of his extremist views. "It's not a crime to think about doomsday scenarios."
But with Hasson in court, prosecutors called him a "domestic terrorist" who intended to "murder innocent civilians."
"What drives the government's concern is what also gives the court pause," Day said before he gave the government 14 days to bring additional charges and before Hasson's lawyer could file an appeal for his possible release.
Hasson called for "focused violence" to "establish a white homeland," prosecutors said in court filings. It's unclear whether Hasson had a specific date for an attack, but the government said he had been stockpiling weapons for at least two years, spending $14,000 a year on equipment to ready for an attack.
As he built an arsenal, prosecutors contend, Hasson read manifestos by the Unabomber, the Virginia Tech shooter and the Olympic Park bomber among other domestic mass shooters, and also looked for guidance to the plot of right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, who in 2011 unleashed two attacks in Norway that killed 77 people.
"I am dreaming of a way to kill almost every last person on the earth," Hasson said in one of his letters that contemplated creating a biological plague, according to records filed in U.S. District Court in Maryland.
During the raid this month, law enforcement officers seized 15 firearms and more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition from what they called his "cramped basement apartment" that was at the line near Prince George's County.
Hasson, who had a bald head and was wearing a pink prison uniform, did not speak in court.
No one answered the door at the residential address that appeared to be associated with Hasson. Law enforcement officials in Montgomery County also said that while there were calls about loud parties in the area in recent years, there were no calls for service that would indicate anything was amiss at that residence.
Hasson joined the Coast Guard in March 1996 as an enlisted electronics technician and was promoted to chief warrant officer in 2012 and lieutenant in 2015, McBride said. He will remain on active duty until the legal case against him is adjudicated but has stopped working since his arrest.
Hasson was arrested once the FBI and Coast Guard investigators were "confident in the strength of the evidence supporting the criminal complaint and warrant," McBride said.
As recently as Jan. 17, Hasson created a list of "traitors" and targets in a spreadsheet while reviewing various broadcast news sites from his work computer, court filings show. The list included people prosecutors believe to be Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., CNN reporter Don Lemon and nearly two dozen others.
"Unlawful possession of drugs and firearms, as well as advocacy for supremacist doctrine, ideology, or causes, violates Coast Guard policy, the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and our organization core values," McBride said in an email.
Hasson's access to Coast Guard headquarters has been revoked. He held a secret-level security clearance beginning in April 2005, and background checks did not find information that merited denying it, McBride said. Secret clearance typically allows access to information that can cause serious damage to U.S. national security if disclosed. It is considered more significant than confidential access and less significant than top-secret access.
Yvonne Carlock, a Marine Corps spokeswoman, said Wednesday that Hasson joined the service in December 1988, serving as an F/A-18 aircraft mechanic. His last rank in that service was corporal.
Federal authorities said he left sometime in 1993.
In June 1994, Hasson moved over to the Virginia Army National Guard, becoming an infantryman with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 183rd Infantry Regiment, said Kurt Rauschenberg, a National Guard Bureau spokesman. His unit was based south of Richmond, Virginia, near the town of Petersburg.
In September 1995, Hasson switched to the Arizona Army National Guard and left about six months later, in March 1996, exiting with the same rank as when he joined.
Property records indicate Hasson moved frequently in his varied military career, including stints in Arizona, California and Virginia. In 2007, he bought a house in Currituck, North Carolina, just across the bay from the Outer Banks. Neighbors said Hasson lived in the house for several years with a woman they identified as his wife and at least one young child.
"It was very neat," said Delena Ostrander, who owns the adjacent lot. "I never heard any complaints."
Her stepfather, Stanley Maculewich, still lives on the short, unpaved lane and remembers Hasson as a big, gun-owning Coast Guardsman who commuted to work early each morning by motorcycle.
"He was a good-sized guy, but I had no problem with him," Maculewich said. "He was shooting his gun out there one day. But when I asked him to stop because I had a daughter in the house who was sick, he said 'Fine.' And that was it, he stopped."
Stolzberg, the contractor who also worked at Coast Guard headquarters with Hasson, said Hasson never raised any alarms at the office. Tall and muscular with a shaved or bald head, Hasson sometimes drove a Harley-Davidson motorcycle to work, Stolzberg said. But his black leather jacket didn't bear any insignia, and his arm tattoos didn't appear out of the ordinary. Nor did Hasson express any radical views, Stolzberg said.
"I didn't have a hard time getting along with him," he said. "I was trying to think back: What did I miss? Was there anything there?"
The Washington Post's Dan Morse, Steve Hendrix, Jennifer Barrios, Julie Tate and Alice Crites contributed to this report.