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Ft. Hood: Crime in the Military. What Motive?

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Thomas Kenniff
Attorney, Army JAG officer, Iraq war veteran
Friday, November 6, 2009; 12:00 PM

Nidal M. Hasan, 39, a major who had made a career in the military and was trained to treat soldiers under stress, allegedly fired a pair of pistols, one of them semiautomatic, in the soldier readiness facility, authorities said. All around him, soldiers who had been waiting to see doctors scattered or dropped to the floor. Hasan and a civilian policewoman exchanged fire, authorities said. Both were hit. Officials said they have not been able to interrogate Hasan -- a devout Muslim born to Palestinian immigrants and raised in the Arlington and Roanoke areas of Virginia -- because of his medical condition. They have not spoken to his relatives either, Rossi said.

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Tom Kenniff, attorney, Army JAG officer and Iraq war veteran who served in Tikrit, was online Friday, Nov. 6, at Noon ET to discuss what happened at Ft. Hood, crimes committed in the military, possible motives and what circumstances can lead to such occurrences.

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Thomas Kenniff: Good afternoon. Tom Kenniff here. looking forward to some intriguing questions and debate. Lets get started!

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Rockville, Md.: Dear Mr. Kenniff, As the wife of a former military officer, it strikes me as odd that the shooter, who was a major in the Army, claimed that he was being harassed for his religious beliefs. While some types of harassment and teasing (which could be serious or not) are surely not uncommon among enlisted men and women, it is harder to envision it happening in the officer ranks. Enlisted soldiers would know not to harass an officer and it is difficult to envision this individual being "made fun of" (the term I saw in the newspaper) by other officers. This seems inconsistent with the norms in that professional context. What is your sense of this claim? Thanks.

Thomas Kenniff: I couldn't agree more and that was one of the points I tried to make on Larry King last night, as Dr. Phil dronned on about PTSD. This is a person who out ranked 95% of the military, and occupied a position of prestige both in the military and as a civilian. Doctors are treated like gold in the Army. Moreover, he had not even been deployed yet and, no, I don't but the whole "PTSD by proxy" argument that so many people tried to sell on television last night. The facts suggest someone motivated by ideology--just like the Akbar case in 2003.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: The suspect, Nidal Malik Hasan, was on the federal government's "radar" as a trouble person. Isn't this a telling sign of a major problem of our anti-crime intelligence: we have gathered lots of information on so many suspects, yet we have not devised an effective means to go through all this intelligence to effectively identify who it is that poses a real risk?

Thomas Kenniff: Yes, the military conducts extensive background/security checks on both enlisted and officers. If he was going to be deployed he would have had to be screened for a security clearance-don't know how they would have missed this, but its very scary

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Outside the Beltway: To me it's just common sense: why would the Army send a devout Muslim to a Muslim country, where he would not be able to separate his religion from the army's mission in Iraq?

Thomas Kenniff: Well we have to be careful not to paint all Muslims with the same brush. I served with many very good Muslim men and woman. Often they can provide vital services regarding language and culture in a combat zone, that non-Muslims cannot. But we must be vigilant in screening out extremists from our military, regardless of their ethnicity

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Anonymous: It seems like this wouldn't have happened had the military not been so "politically correct." After all, this gunman gave a number of clues that he was having problems with this country's military objectives. But because of fear of being called racist, no one spoke up. What do you think?

Thomas Kenniff: Obsessive political correctness is a problem in both the military and our culture. I was a victim of it last night on Larry King, and I'm being called a racist all over the internet for suggesting that we should take into consideration whether he harbored any extremist religious views that caused him to kill and maim dozens of American soldiers. Not all Muslims are terrorists, and not all terrorists Muslims, but it fair to inquire when something like this happens

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Rockville, Mad.: Will Army CID retain jurisdiction for this crime on a military installation, or do you think the FBI will take over as a terrorism case?

Second, could he receive the death penalty under the UCMJ if convicted by a general court martial?

Thomas Keniff: I believe the Judge Advocate General's Office on Ft. Hood will have exclusive jurisdiction over this case, at least for purposes of charging him with multiple counts of murder, attempted murder, etc. This can be, and most certainly be a death penalty case. Its possible he could also be charged by the Feds with committing an act of terrorism, but my guess is the Army will get first crack at him

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New York: I liked your Dr. Phil comments.

If someone really doesn't want to be deployed, or if they have religious objections, what are their options? Is the military accommodating of such objections?

Thomas Kenniff: My understanding is this guy was commissioned in 2001, any contractual commitment he had to the army would not have gone longer 6 to 8 years, at most. He most likely decided to renew his contract, most likely to avail himself of a big medical enlistment bonus--now he claims he wanted out and didn't want to deploy . . .

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Arlington, Va.: With respect, two out of the last three Iraq/War on Terror "fraggings" were the result of Muslim soldiers attacking their colleagues. While it can't be painted as a broad brushstroke, I'm afraid this is the elephant in the room when it comes to discussions like this. While we are afraid of making unfair generalizations, I think it's also dishonest not to explore it further.

Thomas Kenniff: Dishonest and dangerous. Think of it this way, what if this wasn't an isolated incident, what if this had been only the first incident in a series of coordinated attacks. Do we want our intelligence and law enforcement agencies immediately to be on the look out for possible terror cells operating in or around the base? Or do we want a bunch of psychiatrists and social workers droning on about different stresses high ranking officer may have been experiencing

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Washington, D.C.: I think it is interesting to note his possible attempt to get out of the military. I am sure this will come out in the days ahead, although I am not sure it will get much more than passing interest. It should be noted that the military makes it extremely hard to separate when you are under contractual obligations, which can run as long as 8 to 10 years. Even someone willing to pay back for training is not allowed out. People do change over years -- and given the threat of a dishonorable discharge it is therefore better to just live a conflicted life until the time when one can separate. In this case perhaps he reached some breaking point -- of course why not just desert instead of killing people is beyond comprehension, other than some ideological agenda taken into account.

Thomas Kenniff: I haven't seen any contracts for officers that go beyond a 6 year active/2 year inactive requirement, and even that's long for active duty personnel. I would be very surprised if he didn't "re-up" at least once since 2001

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Washington, D.C.: This incident seems to validate every chauvinistic bigot inside the military who claims that you can "never trust a Muslim". Early reports indicate that religious harassment seems to have played a role in Maj. Hasan's transition from patriotic recruit (he joined against his parent's wishes) to disgruntled traitor.

As a military officer, what do you think this event portends for the openly devout Muslims who serve in the military?

Thomas Kenniff: I am in no way suggesting that it is easy to be a Muslim in America or in the military. I can tell you that in my years in the Army I have never witnessed another officer, Muslim or otherwise, being harassed about his race or religion. The Army is very vigilant when it comes to any sort of harassment, if for no other reason than they don't want the kind of media fallout that resulted from past incidents. I won't say it doesn't go on, but I find it very hard to believe this Major and Medial Doctor was harassed to the degree that it would lead him to this point

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Think of it this way?: "Think of it this way, what if this wasn't an isolated incident, what if this had been only the first incident in a series of coordinated attacks. Do we want our intelligence and law enforcement agencies immediately to be on the lookout for possible terror cells operating in or around the base?

What if, what if. How are you any different than Dr. Phil in making outrageous claims without a basis in fact?

Thomas Kenniff: Part of anti-terrorism is planning for different scenarios, being vigilant. Dr. Phil is entitled to his opinion, and if it turns out this was just a deranged individual who acted without motive-so be it. But I believe there's a grave risk in not immediately exploring terrorism as a possible factor

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McLean, Va.: Without pandering to the right wing's desire to blame this on the Muslims or the left's desire to blame it on the war, a few questions:

Would the military have been lenient toward him, not just because of political correctness, but because they're short on majors or psychiatrists or Muslims or Muslim psychiatrists?

Thomas Kenniff: As a matter of policy no. However, doctors and med professionals are always in high demand in the military-and they are generally treated very well. I have seen cases where people who possess a special skill of high value to the military are at least "unofficially" treated differently. I suppose that goes on in any big institutional setting though

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How the military thinks...: One article mentioned he had been given a lot of weapons training. As a psychiatrist, why would this have been necessary?

Why would they even send someone with that specialty to the Middle East? If a soldier had a mental problem, wouldn't it be better to ship him home for specialized long-term treatment there? Surely in most cases, being near harms way on the front lines would make their illness worse. Remove them from that environment and send them to a safer place in the U.S.

Thomas Kenniff: Typically a doctor would not get a lot of weapons training in the army, beyond basic range competency. Medics usually are treated as non-combatants in a combat zone, and only carry small arms for defense of themselves and their patients.

I do believe mental health professionals are vital in a combat zone. Some soldiers may just need someone to talk do and may not necessarily have a mental or medical condition that requires them to leave theatre

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Washington, D.C.: My suspicion is that this doctor was himself mentally ill - it could explain why he felt persecuted even though he was a major, and a doctor. Descriptions of some of his behavior (wouldn't be photographed with women, his "conditions" for a spouse) sound a lot like an OCD which can manifest as extreme religious scrupulosity. So my question is, are psychiatrists themselves subject to screenings prior to deployment? Did he pass his, or was he still waiting to take one at Fort Hood?

Also, I agree that it sounds like he did not take the opportunity to get out of the Army when his enlistment was up, if he has really been in since 2001.

Thomas Kenniff: I think anyone who kills innocent people is mentally ill. Its a question of did he have the capacity to understand what he was doing and was he motivated by an extremist ideology that perhaps contributed to his psychosis

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Rosslyn, Va.: Thomas Kenniff: Some of the Hasan apologists today are saying he should have been allowed to pay back his medical training cost and be released from his obligation to the Army. Isn't being in the volunteer armed forces far different from the private employer world -- one has signed up to be in the Army, with all that goes with that, right? You have an enlistment period and you can't "opt out" whenever you please, right? I agree you were attacked improperly on Larry King, also.

Thomas Kenniff: Yes, he voluntarily entered the army and availed himself of the benefits, probably at least twice. The reality is if he truly didn't want to deploy, as a Major and a doctor he probably could have wiggled his way out of it. He could have claimed "conscientious objector" or sought stateside duty. believe me, the army is not looking to send someone of Islamic faith to a combat zone, when they're protesting the war and they're roll in it.

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D.C.: He went to USUHS for medical school, so he owes the military 7 years, and internship and residency years don't count toward that commitment. He still could be within the scope of his original service contract.

Thomas Kenniff: If he was going to school after being commissioned and his schooling was paid for through the Army, then you may be right. What I had heard so far was he came in as a doctor. Nonetheless, I have seen plenty of officers who have managed to avoid deployment for all sort of reasons.

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Bethesda, Md.: Was he a psychiatrist with a medical degree. And does the military give psychological tests to psychiatrists in the military, or do they not because they assume psychiatrists/psychologists wouldn't have mental illnesses?

Thomas Kenniff: Everyone was to go throw medical screening when they enter. I was never given "psychological screening" per se, but they do do a criminal background check and check references. I think Psych screening make a lot of sense though

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Silver Spring, Md.: Since the Army apparently paid for his college and medical training (considerable for his specialty), would he not be obligated for more years than the typical commissioned officer?

Thomas Kenniff: The most I've heard is doctors having a 7 year commitment, and in some cases less as the army is hungry for docs. However, if he was going to school on the army's dime, and was commissioned before he completed his schooling, then possibly it would be a longer period

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Washington, D.C. : You seem to be having a difficult time reconciling a difficult question. Do we avoid sending Muslims to Muslim countries? Asians to Asian countries? Blacks to Africa? Jews to Israel?

Thomas Kenniff: Absolutely not. As I said earlier, often soldiers with an innate knowledge of the cultural landscape we are operating can be our biggest assets. We just need to be vigilant in guarding against extremism, Islamic or otherwise. We have plenty of Anglo extremists right in this country i.e., KKK and other hate groups

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Washington, D.C.: There may be more information about Major Hasan's military record to come out. Have you read or heard anything that indicates that possibly Maj. Hasan might have received some sort of preferential treatment from his superiors in regards to disciplinary matters because he is an officer and physician rather than an enlisted man?

Thomas Kenniff: I haven't heard anything yet. I do know that in general officers tend to be scrutinized a lot less than enlisted men, once they receive their commissions. Rank has it privileges, and so on . . .

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Washington, D.C.: I read somewhere that the shooter had received a 'not so glowing' performance review, but other news sources are reporting that there was nothing in his files that indicated he wasn't performing well.

My question is: supposing he did have a bad review, how difficult is it for the Army/military to essentially fire him or put him on leave?

Thomas Kenniff: Well it would take more than one bad review, however, if he was constantly getting below center mass ratings, it could hold up his promotions-and its a move up or move out military

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Is PTSD more widespread or severe now than it was back in, say, WW II? That conflict involved so many young Americans in combat situations that it seems that if as high a proportion suffered PTSD afterwards, this country would never have managed to muster a post-war "Greatest Generation"! Or are today's fighters just wimpier?

Thomas Kenniff: I don't think our soldiers are wimpier. War today seems to be more controversial than perhaps WWII where almost everyone agreed we were fighting a just war with a defined enemy. I think maybe the greatest generation, having lived through the Great Depression, where perhaps more accustomed to tragedy and personal sacrifice than our generation. there's probably many contributing factors, but the majority of our men and women in uniform are proud to have served and perform beyond expectation

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Re: his contract: Are you an expert on the military HPSP, or are you speculating as to his potential contract due to the military paying for his medical school?

Thomas Kenniff: I can only tell you in my experience that have not seen many commissions or enlistment contracts that go beyond 8 years, and based on the fact that he received his commission almost 9 years ago, I would be surprised if he didn't re-up at least once

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Woodbridge Va.: What steps do anticipate the military will take to deal with soldiers' reaction to this incident? I think many of them may adapt a "trust but verify" approach -- treat their fellow soldiers who are Muslim with friendship and respect but exercise heightened situational awareness that is difficult to hide or ignore. It is may not be PC but it beats dying.

Thomas Kenniff: Yes, unfortunately we're all human and I'm sure if it comes out that this individual was motivated by extremist philosophy it wont make it any easier to be Muslim in the military. Nonetheless, everyone must keep in mind that there are over a billion Muslims in the world, and only a handful of terrorists. People must judge others by they're acts and not their ethnicity or faith

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Washington, D.C.: Please get your facts straight. I'm an obligated physician on my first contract and I joined 1 year before him.

Thomas Kenniff: I prefaced everything with "in my experience" and said that if the army paid for his schooling than that's a game changer, similar to the army's funded legal education program. Nonetheless, thank you for your service.

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Fort Leavenworth, Kan.: Are you representing the the U.S. Army at this time, or serving as a "Subject Matter Expert" for the Washington Post?

Thomas Kenniff: I'm simply an invited guest on this forum, not serving in any official capacity and no longer on active duty in the military

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Farmington, Minn.: First, I want to say my heart goes out to the victims and their families.

But something still does not seem right. This man had two handguns which hold 10 bullets. How could he have shot so many people in such a short time? Is it possible that some of those shots were hit by "friendly fire" in those trying to take the gunman down? Thank you.

Thomas Kenniff: It's a big misconception that soldiers carry guns on state side military bases, this happens only in controlled settings. The soldier readiness center where this occurred is basically the army's version of a DMV. Its hundreds of soldiers in a confined space. The only ones that would have had guns are MPs or civilian dept of the army police, there's no reason to think they would be stationed near the SRC building. Ft. Hood is huge and it could have taken sometime for police to arrive. He may have had plenty of time to reload

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Philadelphia, Pa.: MSNBC had a retired colonel interviewed who stated he doubted that a motive was that the major was ridiculed by colleagues. He stated he found that no one ridicules a major. Does that seem correct to you, or are there exceptions where people will ridicule someone at that rank?

Thomas Kenniff: I'm sure he could have been ridiculed by some of his own rank or above, but that would be uncommon for a major in the officer's corps-especially a doctor-they operate in their own universe within the army

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Centreville, Va.: Thomas, I just want to thank you for your service to our nation. Too often we ignore or forget our fighting men and women.

Thomas Kenniff: Thank you. But there's a lot of soldiers giving a lot more than I did, who are still over there. lets thank them

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Washington, D.C.: I realize hindsight is 20/20, but from early reports it sounds like this guy had made his personal and religious preferences very clear, and seemed a bit extreme with regard to women, etc. He sounds unfit to be a) a licensed psychiatrist, b) in the Army, and c) deployed to war -- much less all 3 at once. Are officers screened for psych disorders less often as well? Another privilege of rank, perhaps?

Thomas Kenniff: In my experience, the Army does not do general periodic psych screenings, if someone raises a red flag to someone's command-then it should be acted upon

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San Francisco, Calif.: Were recently reported past statements of the shooter actionable, indentifying him as a security risk?

Thomas Kenniff: they should have at least been enough to warrant some sort of investigation

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Thomas Kenniff: Thanks for joining me and for all the great questions. Have a great day. Tom Kenniff

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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