Christopher Hasson, a self-avowed white nationalist who once considered himself a skinhead, managed to fly under Pentagon officials’ radar for decades. He was background-checked multiple times as he rose up the ranks, eventually becoming a Coast Guard lieutenant.
But what prosecutors describe as his extremist leanings, his desire to establish a “white homeland,” and his idolization of mass murderers didn’t come to light until he was investigated for ordering synthetic opioids from Mexico.
On Wednesday, federal prosecutors filed court documents that laid bare his alleged plans to carry out a domestic terror attack — a dramatic twist in a case that seemingly began as a straightforward investigation into his reported Tramadol habit.
Prosecutors say that Hasson was stockpiling weapons as part of a plot to massacre well-known Democrats and journalists. In a draft email to a neo-Nazi leader, Hasson allegedly wrote about the need for “focused violence” to establish a “white homeland,” and mentioned that he still had friends in skinhead groups.
“The defendant intends to murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country,” prosecutors said, signalling that they intended to pursue additional charges.
The fact that Hasson spent some 30 years in the U.S. military has raised new questions about the thoroughness of the Department of Defense’s background checks and the efficacy of decades-long efforts to flush out white supremacy from its ranks.
National security experts told VICE News that the department has some safeguards in place to keep alleged extremists like Hasson out of the military. But, particularly for those without high-level security clearance, those protections generally rely on self-reporting or background checks.
In an August 2017 email, Hasson said he was a skinhead until he joined the Marine Corps in 1988, according to federal court documents.
Marine Corps spokesman Maj. Brian Block told VICE News that, had Hasson disclosed his alleged involvement in a skinhead group prior to joining the military, he would have been disqualified from the recruitment process.
Hasson’s military career
Hasson rose to the rank of corporal during his five years in Marines, then spent two years in the Army National Guard. He eventually got a job with the Coast Guard in 1996 as an electronics technician.
In 2012, he was promoted to Chief Warrant Officer, and promoted again in 2015 to lieutenant, a Coast Guard spokesperson confirmed to VICE News. The following year, he was transferred to Coast Guard headquarters in D.C., where he’s been working as an acquisitions officer for its National Security Cutter program, which is the largest class of Coast Guard commissioned vessels.
“The defendant intends to murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country”
The Coast Guard started investigating Hasson last fall, after the agency’s “Insider Threat” program, which relies on employees to report suspicious activity among coworkers, flagged concerns about him. They didn’t say what the concerns were, but charging documents noted that he was stashing the synthetic opioid Tramadol at his desk at work.
Hasson’s access to Coast Guard Headquarters has been revoked, and he remains on active duty pending the outcome of the case, Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Barry Lane told VICE News.
The vetting process
Like all recruits seeking a job in the military Hasson would have undergone medical and psychological checks. He would have also been required to fill out out a lengthy questionnaire called an SF86, completed by all military personnel and prospective employees for national security positions.
“Assuming he was never subject to a polygraph, it is entirely plausible he was able to conceal his skinhead background from the U.S. government.”
The form asks applicants “Are you now or have you EVER been a member of an organization dedicated to terrorism, either with an awareness of the organization's dedication to that end, or with the specific intent to further such activities?”
The U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which issues the form, defines terrorism for this purpose as criminal acts that “involve violence or are dangerous to human life and appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.”
The form also asks whether an applicant had ever been a member of an organization that advocates for violence, or commits violence with the goal of discouraging others from exercising their constitutional rights.
Bradley Moss, a national security lawyer, said “Assuming he was never subject to a polygraph, it is entirely plausible he was able to conceal his skinhead background from the U.S. government.”
Department of Defense employees receive one of three security clearances: Confidential, which is the lowest; Secret; and Top Secret. In 2005, Hasson received a “Secret” level security clearance, but was not given access to any information that would have required a polygraph. Military personnel hires working on national security are required to fill out that same questionnaire, and Hasson would likely have been required to fill it out again for other jobs at the Department of Defense.
Moss said at least one of the questions on the new hire form may have applied to Hasson, but that since he was accepted into the defense department he presumably answered “no.”
We don’t know much about the nature of alleged Hasson’s skinhead background or the extent of his involvement. Those details are key to understanding whether his views and activities should have been flagged when he was recruited, says Mark Zaid, a national security law expert and founder of the James Madison Project, an advocacy group that promotes government transparency.
“There’s a distinction between if he holds white nationalist views but is really just some loner in his own mind and world, even if he has Hitler pictures all over his home, and some of the folks who were at Charlottesville and engaged in physical assault,” said Zaid.
To receive a “Secret” level clearance, Hasson also would have been subject to a background check. For that level of access, investigators might talk to a former employer or two, or a couple of references that he provided, said Moss. If he’d been up for a “Top Secret” clearance level, investigators would have gone deeper into his background, including interviewing his friends, neighbors, and former colleagues.
“Depending on who the government investigators interviewed as part of their vetting, it is entirely conceivable they never met anyone who disclosed Hasson’s white supremacist views,” Moss said. “The clearance vetting process is inherently premised on trust in disclosures by the person being vetted.”
A spokesperson for the Coast Guard also noted in a statement to VICE News that Coast Guard military personnel are “prohibited from advocating supremacist doctrine, ideology, or causes.”
Extremism in the Ranks
Moss said that commanding officers will generally keep an eye on new recruits and “address any possible issues that arise, including taking disciplinary action if disturbing radicalization is evident.”
“The problem, of course, is that it is not always apparent what is going on and the Department of Defense is very careful to avoid becoming the political morality police,” said Moss.
Researchers say that right-wing extremism in the military is a persistent problem, and a 2017 report by the Military Times found that one in four troops had encountered white nationalism in the ranks. After a ProPublica report exposed three service members with ties to the violent neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen last year, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) wrote a letter to former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis asking for information about what the Pentagon is doing to screen recruits for extremist ties.
When Hasson joined the military in 1988 he served in a marine detachment aboard a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier called the USS Theodore Roosevelt. Two years earlier, and at the height of the “white power” movement – Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger ordered military personnel to cease participation in white supremacist organizations.
After three soldiers who were also neo-Nazi skinheads were accused of committing two racially-motivated murders in December 1995, the Pentagon launched a task force to investigate the issue. That task force found persisting “indications of extremist and racist attitudes among soldiers.” In response, the military broadened its policy on extremism to give more discretion to commanders to report service members’ beliefs or behavior.
And in 2000, the Department of the Army released guidance instructing military personnel how to comply with the policy. The guidelines ranged from what kind of tattoos they can have to how commanders should handle extremist activity in their ranks.
But Kathleen Belew, a history professor at the University of Chicago and author of “Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America,” said military policy has consistently lagged behind the problem of extremism in the ranks.
Belew said that’s in part because defense officials have to toe a line between addressing the problem and avoiding tarnishing the reputation of military service members broadly. They also run the risk of limiting their freedom of expression.
But this lag, Belew said, has allowed people like Hasson to fall through the cracks and fomented a decades-long tradition of military personnel joining white power or far-right extremist movements. She added that they post a particular risk by increasing the violent potential of these groups.
“Active duty service members and veterans have worked to move things from military space to civilian spaces — uniform and language, all the way up to tactics and weapons — and train other white power activists in violent methods,” Belew said.
Cover: In this undated handout photo provided by U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland, the collection of weapons and ammunition federal agents say they found in Christopher Paul Hasson's Silver Spring apartment are shown in Maryland. (Photo by U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland via Getty Images)