Coast Guard Officer Accused Of Stockpiling Illegal Weapons Pleads Not Guilty

Mar 11, 2019
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In federal court today, Coast Guard Officer Christopher Hasson pleaded not guilty to charges that he stockpiled illegal weapons and opioids. Prosecutors claim Lieutenant Hasson also drew up a list of prominent cable news anchors and Democratic politicians that he wanted to shoot. But Hasson has not been charged with planning an actual attack. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre was at the U.S. District Court outside Washington today. He joins us now. And, Greg, what did you learn today about this case?

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Well, the hearing today was actually very brief. Hasson said just a few words. His lawyer pleaded not guilty for him. But it pointed to this unusual nature of this case and, I think, even more broadly a lot of the sort of suspected extremist case that we're seeing. Now, he was arrested last month at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington. He was, according to the prosecutors - they're calling him a domestic terrorist.

And it pervaded that - provided this detailed picture that he studied mass shootings on his work computer. He wrote that he was a white nationalist and wanted to kill. He had 15 guns. He had ammo and opioids at his apartment and this list of 20 Democrats and cable TV anchors. But the charges are pretty straightforward - illegal weapons and opioids, now a couple additional charges that he had some silencers.

CORNISH: And yet he's not charged with planning an attack.

MYRE: That's right. And last month, the judge even said at his first appearance that he might be eligible for bail if the government didn't bring more serious charges. But today they said he will remain in custody for a trial. But this is certainly going to be a key part of his defense, that - they're arguing that this wasn't a plan for a mass shooting; this was just a list on his computer. And his lawyer said, we don't charge people based on their computer searches.

CORNISH: If prosecutors have called him a domestic terrorist, what kind of charges could they bring beyond the weapons and drug charges?

MYRE: Well, you know, we are hearing this increased talk about domestic terrorism. We've seen a rise in attacks by people linked to the far-right. But in legal terms, there is really not a federal law for prosecuting domestic terrorism. You can be charged with terrorism for acting on behalf of an outlawed terrorist group. And the State Department has a list of about 60 terrorist groups. Islamic State and al-Qaida are best-known them among them. And there's lots more, but they're all foreign groups. So the government doesn't keep a list of domestic terrorist groups.

CORNISH: What's the reason for that?

MYRE: Well, some argue that there should be and that - even that it shows a sort of bias that a lot of foreign Muslim militants are listed as belonging to terrorist groups but far-right white groups in the U.S. are not. However, if you get into the business of defining domestic terror groups, it would get complicated very, very fast. The U.S. government would have to decide where free speech ends and where a terrorist group begins.

So people like the FBI and the Department of Justice - they don't really want to get involved in this. They say, we can prosecute murder and hate crimes and - sufficiently without having a domestic terrorism law. And even groups like the ACLU say you would immediately run into free speech rights, who - what - First Amendment issues right away.

So we keep hearing this talk more and more about domestic terrorism as part of the general conversation about attacks that we see. But there still isn't any law and no real movement to create an actual domestic terrorism law.

CORNISH: And in the meantime, what's next for this case?

MYRE: We're expecting to hear - in early April, he'll be - he'll be back in court. We'll see if there are any additional charges at that time.

CORNISH: That's NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Greg, thanks.

MYRE: Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.