Fort Hood report offers some useful ideas on averting similar tragedies

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Saturday, February 6, 2010

A REPORT on the Fort Hood shootings makes two things clear: Systemic changes are needed to avert similar attacks, and systemic failures were only partly to blame for the breakdowns that allowed the alleged shooter, Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, to go on a murderous rampage.

The report, requested by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and authored by former Army secretary Togo D. West Jr. and retired Adm. Vernon E. Clark, spends much of its 86 pages recommending ways the Army and other armed services can better share criminal and investigative information among themselves and with civilian counterparts. Military and civilian officials should act promptly to implement these suggestions, including allowing military personnel better access to civilian law enforcement information.

They must be careful, however, not to go too far. The report raises the possibility of compelling civilian mental health professionals to divulge information about military clients they believe to be dangerous. Such professionals normally are ethically bound to guard their clients' secrets, yet under certain circumstances they are permitted to alert law enforcement officials about a client who appears to be on the verge of harming others. It is not clear how much further the report would have the therapists go, but further intrusions on the doctor-client relationship could have the perverse effect of scaring off military personnel who could benefit from counseling.

Maj. Hasan is not mentioned by name, but it is clear that the "alleged perpetrator" in the report is the former Army psychiatrist who spent several years treating soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here before being transferred to Fort Hood last year. The briefest part of the report, the section that outlines the Army's pre-Fort Hood dealings with Maj. Hasan, is also the most disturbing. The authors found that protocols and procedures at Walter Reed for evaluating officers are "generally adequate," but that "several officers failed to comply" with them when evaluating Maj. Hasan. For example, "discrepancies exist between the alleged perpetrator's documented performance in official records and his actual performance during his training, residency and fellowship." They conclude that supervisors and colleagues should have been aware of the potential danger posed by Maj. Hasan, but that "some signs were clearly missed; others ignored."

The Post's Dana Priest has documented colleagues' unease with a lecture that Maj. Hasan delivered about the possibility of Muslim service members acting out violently in opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. National Public Radio reported that colleagues and supervisors "bent over backwards" to support Maj. Hasan -- even after he had been reprimanded for proselytizing soldiers -- for fear that they would appear to be "discriminating" against him for his religious views.

The report recommends that the Army evaluate Maj. Hasan's superiors and urges possible disciplinary action. The Army must do so, and it should make its findings public. It must answer without flinching whether Maj. Hasan was unjustly promoted because of the Army's desire to retain and promote Muslim service members. It must be candid about whether Maj. Hasan's supervisors gave him unearned passing marks and, if so, whether they were trying to hide problems to encourage another military unit to take the major off their hands.

The report recommends the promulgation of guidelines to help the armed services better identify troubled personnel who may pose a threat, as well as a clear process for reporting and handling such matters. These are worthy endeavors, but as the case of Maj. Hasan proves, no policy can fully control for human error or human apathy. And no policy can succeed if political correctness trumps the truth.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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