Did the Army Ignore Red Flags Because of Hasan's Religion?

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Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters

U.S. soldiers light candles during a vigil at Hood Stadium in Fort Hood, Texas, on Nov. 6, 2009

As officials continue to investigate the alleged Fort Hood killer, it is looking increasingly likely that the Army missed several red flags in Major Nidal Malik Hasan's behavior. Many observers say it wouldn't be surprising if such signals had been missed, given that Hasan was a psychiatrist whom the Army desperately needed to help tend to the mental wounds of two wars. But at the same time, some members of the military are quietly discussing the more troubling possibility that the Army looked the other way precisely because Hasan was Muslim.

Army officials strongly deny any suggestion that Hasan's religion resulted in his being given special treatment. But one officer who attended the Pentagon's medical school with Hasan disagrees. "He was very vocal about being a Muslim first and holding Shari'a law above the Constitution," this officer recalls. When fellow students asked, "How can you be an officer and hold to the Constitution?," the officer says, Hasan would "get visibly upset — sweaty and nervous — and had no good answers." This medical doctor would speak only anonymously because his commanders have ordered him not to talk about Hasan, he says.

This officer says he was so surprised when Hasan gave a talk about "the war on terror being a war on Islam" that he asked the lieutenant colonel running the course what Hasan's presentation had to do with health care. "I raised my hand and asked, 'Why are you letting this go on — this has nothing to do with environmental health.' The course director said, 'I'm just going to let him go.' " The topic of Hasan's presentation, the officer says, had been approved in advance by the lieutenant colonel.

The officer says he and a colleague complained to staff at the Uniformed University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., but got nowhere: "It was a systemic problem — the same thing was happening at Walter Reed," the Army medical center several miles away, where Hasan was working as a psychiatrist. (The Washington Post reported Tuesday that Hasan gave a similar presentation at Walter Reed in which he said Muslims should be released as conscientious objectors rather than forced into combat against fellow Muslims.) But "political correctness" inside the military, the officer asserts, insulated Hasan. "People are afraid to come forward and challenge somebody's ideology," he says, "because they're afraid of getting an equal-opportunity complaint that can end careers."

A retired four-star officer says that, on the basis of the evidence gleaned so far, it was Hasan's career that should have been cut short. "They could have given him a dishonorable discharge and said what he's doing works against good order and discipline," says the general, who also requested anonymity. But rather than it being a matter of giving preferential treatment to Hasan because of his religion, "my guess is he fell through the cracks," the general says.

Whether he fell through the cracks or was cut slack because of concerns about appearing to impinge on his religious freedom will be a focus of the investigations under way. "The Army was just under such pressure that they planned to send him to Afghanistan," says Lawrence Korb, Pentagon personnel chief during the Reagan Administration. But Korb says he's perplexed by reports that Hasan received poor evaluations and still got promoted. "That tells me the Army didn't do its job," he says — though he attributes that to the unrelenting demand to keep mental-health professionals on duty rather than to Hasan's religion.

But Ralph Peters, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who now writes military books and a newspaper column, contends that Hasan's religion protected him from punitive action by the Army, a view shared privately by many in uniform. While stressing "there shouldn't be witch hunts" against Muslims in uniform, Peters insists "this guy got a pass because he was a Muslim, despite the Army's claim that everybody's green and we're all the same."

Congress is already beginning to look into why an Army psychiatrist who reportedly had to be counseled against sharing his antiwar views with soldiers back from combat could have possibly been promoted in May. Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said on Monday that he will hold a hearing next week to see "whether the government missed warning signs that should have led to [Hasan's] expulsion" before he killed 13 people on the Texas post last Thursday. Hasan's former classmate, for one, says he wasn't surprised to see Hasan's face flash across his television screen. "After the shock," he says, "the first thing that went through my mind was, Hey, I remember everything this guy said."

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