Prosecutors say Coast Guard Lt. Christopher P. Hasson was poised to become one of the worst mass murderers in U.S. history — yet all they have charged him with is possessing a synthetic opioid and owning an illegal gun-silencer.
It’s a curious situation that has legal analysts questioning where the government should draw the line between a domestic terrorist and a man merely fantasizing about doomsday scenarios.
“Lots of people have bad thoughts, but we don’t have thought crimes in the United States,” said Tung Yin, a professor at Lewis & Clark Law School.
To hear investigators tell it, Lt. Hasson had worked up a target list that included top Democrats and liberal members of the news media, kept a well-stocked arsenal capable of mass mayhem and was weeks into a drug regimen timed to end with becoming a “superhuman one-man-army for 2 hours.”
The implication was that the lieutenant was poised to strike.
Yet those accusations appear only in the government’s motion to keep Lt. Hasson in jail ahead of a possible trial. Detention motions have a smaller burden of proof than criminal charges, giving prosecutors more leeway to make accusations.
But U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles B. Day, who oversaw Lt. Hasson’s initial detention hearing last month, appears skeptical.
He told prosecutors that it was unusual to detain a defendant based on the drug charges lodged, but he did order Lt. Hasson to be held without bail. That gave the government several weeks to bring additional charges before his attorney could petition for release.
The crux of prosecutors’ case, in addition to the drugs and weapons possession, is Lt. Hasson’s seeming obsession with the writings of Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people in two 2011 terrorist attacks in Norway.
Breivik’s 1,500-page white supremacist manifesto was a “blueprint for future single-cell or ‘lone wolf’ terrorist operations,” prosecutors said. They also said Lt. Hasson studied Breivik’s method of rating “traitors,” perused Breivik’s “mistakes to be avoided” list and duplicated his doping regimen for building aggressiveness in preparation for an attack.
Yet no evidence has emerged that Lt. Hasson had a specific plan, date or concrete idea for an attack.
Analysts say the lack of a clear-cut plan is unusual in these types of cases but that Lt. Hasson did appear to take some steps.
“There is a whole litany of cases from the Supreme Court that talk about the border between free speech and genuine threat. This guy sounds like he is just on that border,” said Stephen F. Downs, a lawyer and co-founder of Project SALAM, an organization that provides legal support to Muslims and maintains a database of domestic terrorism prosecutions.
Todd Leventhal, a Las Vegas lawyer who has handled domestic terrorism cases, said it is a common ploy for the government to blur the lines between words and actions.
“The government absolutely overuses the term ‘domestic terrorist’ because it automatically sends shivers down people’s spines,” he said. “They want him in jail because he’s in a different position to make deals if he is in custody. It changes the dynamic of the case going forward.”
He said the government has a better chance to build a terrorism case with Lt. Hasson in jail.
“They can record his phone calls and put snitches in his cell to get more information,” he said. “That is the strategy behind making all this [terrorist] stuff come out. This stuff happens every day.”
Former law enforcement officials defend such tactics. They say terrorism prevention requires using whatever lesser charges are available. Sometimes, they say, more serious terrorism charges will follow in a superseding indictment, while the lesser charges give investigators time to build a stronger case.
“Terrorism charges are a high bar, so we’ll take the easier charge if we can stop the guy,” said Gregory M. Vecchi, a former FBI profiler who now teaches at Missouri Western State University. “A lot of attacks have been prevented that way.”
But lawyers say there are lines that must be respected.
Mr. Yin said the boundary separating a terrorist from a talker is defined by the steps they take toward executing a plot. The Hasson case is especially difficult, he said, because he appeared to take small strides with no evidence of a major push forward.
“The guns are one of the things you need, but lots of people have guns and bad thoughts. That’s not enough for a terrorism charge,” he said. “Hasson’s interest in Breivik is part of it, but we still need more steps.
“If you caught him with plans for the Capitol building, for example, that plus guns and Breivik might show a step closer toward an attempt,” Mr. Yin said.
Clint Van Zandt, a former FBI profiler, said every mass shooter since the Columbine High School attack in 1999 has shared similar characteristics. He said some of those traits appear in the Hasson case.
“When you have someone amassing weapons and studying activities in the past, that is part and parcel with terrorist behavior and something more than a fantasy,” he said.
Determining the line between fantasy and rage is a constant issue for law enforcement. Robert Bowers, who is accused of killing 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue last year, had threatened Jewish people on social media and made a specific threat just hours before the attack.
In 2009, a man with ties to neo-Nazi groups killed a guard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The killer posted several anti-Semitic rants online before the attack.
FBI efforts to stop potential terrorist attacks also have raised scrutiny. Some have questioned whether the FBI entrapped Demetrius Pitts, a Muslim who expressed a desire to join al Qaeda and kill Americans. Mr. Pitts began advancing plans last year for a mass casualty attack for July 4 in Cleveland after an FBI informant gave him a bus pass and cellphone to conduct reconnaissance.