Unheeded red flags regarding Maj. Nidal M. Hasan

Thursday, November 12, 2009

HINTS OF POTENTIAL trouble from Maj. Nidal M. Hasan were there for all to see. There was his troubling presentation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center on Islam and the U.S. military, and questions among colleagues about the psychiatrist's competence and even his sanity. And there was the e-mail correspondence with a known radical Muslim cleric that caught the attention of the FBI. In isolation, they may have appeared less than actionable. Unfortunately, the massacre at Fort Hood last week that killed 13 and wounded 38 others was the tragedy that linked the puzzle pieces.

It's easy to point fingers with the benefit of hindsight. But it's fair to ask whether red flags should have become red alerts. Two joint terrorism task forces became aware in December that Maj. Hasan had sent 10 to 20 e-mails to Anwar al-Aulaqi, a radical cleric who knew three of the Sept. 11 hijackers and who has advocated holy war against the United States. He responded at least twice. But a Defense Department analyst determined that the communication was in keeping with Maj. Hasan's research interests. No other action was taken.

Perhaps that information could have been useful to officials at Walter Reed. Senior physicians are reported to have been upset in June 2007 when Maj. Hasan, a senior-year psychiatric resident, eschewed a medical presentation in favor an hour-long lecture on the Koran, Muslims in the U.S. military and the danger of "adverse events," such as suicide bombings, if Muslims weren't allowed to leave military service as conscientious objectors. Maj. Hasan had expressed concerns about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he was set to be deployed.

National Public Radio reported Wednesday that at a series of meetings in the spring of 2008, officials at Walter Reed and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences discussed whether Maj. Hasan was psychotic. NPR earlier reported that Walter Reed psychiatrists may have been deterred from trying to dismiss the psychiatrist because of onerous procedures; an official on a review committee reportedly asked whether the termination of a doctor who happened to be a Muslim would create an appearance problem.

All this raises several questions, including whether the failures of communication among federal agencies that were identified in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks persist. Should the Army have been informed about whom Maj. Hasan was in contact with? If so, what were the impediments? And when serious questions are raised about key personnel at Walter Reed, are administrators capable of acting? A serious investigation must probe these issues, among others.

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