Prosecutors Fight Pretrial Release of Coast Guard Officer Accused in Plot

(The Washington Post) -
Christopher Hasson had a cache of guns stockpiled to launch a terrorist attack. (U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maryland)

A federal judge ruled Tuesday that a Coast Guard lieutenant accused of plotting an attack could be released from jail on strict bail conditions while he awaits trial, but immediately agreed to put that order on hold pending the government’s plan to appeal.

The decision from U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles Day came in the case of Christopher Hasson. It was the latest in a clash between the government and Hasson’s public defenders over whether Hasson should stay in jail if he has not been charged with a terrorism-related offense.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Maryland has said Hasson amassed weapons and studied the manifestos of mass killers to plan a widespread attack driven by white supremacist views, but it charged him only with drug and weapon offenses. Experts say there is no federal statute pertaining to domestic terror suspects, making the case challenging for the government.

Hasson’s public defenders have fought against the government’s assertions, saying the government has offered no concrete evidence detailing when and how Hasson was allegedly planning to strike. Hasson’s attorneys said that he has no criminal record and that the writings the government pointed to as evidence of his dangerousness were private thoughts that shouldn’t be prosecuted or weighed to keep him in jail pending trial.

Hasson, 50, of Silver Spring, Maryland, was arrested in February after a Coast Guard program that flags insider threats alerted authorities to suspicious activity on his work computer, prosecutors said. He has pleaded not guilty in his case in federal court in Maryland.

At a detention hearing on April 25, Day said he had “grave concerns” about releasing Hasson. But because Hasson faces no terrorism-related counts, and the government doesn’t plan to bring any, the judge determined that the court had to set release conditions.

In a letter to Day filed the week after the hearing, an attorney for Hasson proposed round-the-clock home detention as well as barring access to firearms and controlled substances as part of a release. His attorney suggested several family members who could serve as his custodians, including his wife and her parents in Virginia, or his parents or brother in Arizona.

“With respect to release conditions, we respectfully propose that the following conditions will be more than sufficient to ensure that Mr. Hasson does not pose a danger to the community or a risk of flight,” his attorney Elizabeth Oyer wrote in the letter to Day.

Hasson’s parents are willing to use their home, worth about $400,000, to secure his bond, the letter said. Hasson and his wife also could use a home they rent out in North Carolina in which they have about $50,000 in equity, the letter said.

In a letter opposing the proposed release conditions, Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Windom said none of the options “would meet the Court’s goal – stated at the detention hearing on April 25, 2019 – of ensuring that someone have ‘eyes and ears’ on the defendant ‘like nobody’s business.’ ”

Windom said the proposed locations in Arizona and Virginia are far and would create logistical complications in ensuring that Hasson appears in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Maryland, for hearings and trial. Prosecutors asked how Hasson would be monitored during travel before the trial.

“What happens if,” the government said in court filings, “during the drive, the defendant – a thirty-year service member, at least 5’11”, and 180 pounds – attempts to escape or commandeer the car from his mother-in-law (age 72) or his father-in-law (age 78)?”

After the detention hearing April 25, the U.S. attorney’s office for Maryland issued a statement saying that the government would appeal any release ordered by Day to the U.S. district judge presiding over the case “on the basis of the danger to the community posed by the defendant.”

The government said Hasson created a spreadsheet of targets and researched the addresses of U.S. Supreme Court justices. Hasson, prosecutors said, studied the writings of mass shooters and was inspired by far-right Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in 2011.

Hasson planned to “murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country,” and advocated “focused violence” to “establish a white homeland,” prosecutors said.