Fort Hood: Were Hasan's Warning Signs Ignored?

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Accused Fort Hood gunman Major Nidal Malik Hasan

Nidal Malik Hasan struck some of his classmates as a "ticking time bomb" whose strange personality telegraphed trouble long before he allegedly killed 13 people at Fort Hood. While Hasan usually displayed a quiet and lonely demeanor that "made me feel sorry for him," says a fellow student who is enrolled for an advanced degree at the Pentagon's medical school, such sympathy was tempered by the alleged killer's repeated assertions in class that Muslims were being persecuted by the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

These students, speaking privately because they have been ordered not to speak publicly, say they're angry that what they view as political correctness led their superiors to ignore the warning signs witnessed by students and faculty at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md. Two of them expressed a willingness to testify about Hasan's conduct in the 2007-08 school year but also expressed concern that the military's political sensitivities could compromise any Pentagon investigation.

"We asked him pointedly, 'Nidal, do you consider Shari'a law to transcend the Constitution of the United States?' And he said, 'Yes,' " a classmate told TIME on Monday. "We asked him if homicidal bombers were rewarded for their acts with 72 virgins in heaven and he responded, 'I've done the research — yes.' Those are comments he made in front of the class." But such statements apparently didn't trigger an inquiry. "I was astounded and went to multiple faculty and asked why he was even in the Army," the officer said. "Political correctness squelched any opportunity to confront him."

While military officials have warned against prejudging the case before the investigation is concluded, President Obama said on Nov. 14 that "if there was a failure to take appropriate action before the shootings, there must be accountability." Investigators have asked at least one classmate why he didn't file a formal complaint if he was upset by Hasan's comments. "I said, 'Sir, why should I have to when the faculty heard all of these things firsthand?' " the classmate says. "We shouldn't have had to say anything because these were all classroom assignments." Army and medical-school officials declined to comment on the allegations, citing the probe into the killings.

As evidence about Hasan's background has leached onto the public record since the shooting, Republican lawmakers have become less reluctant to suggest that Hasan acted as a Muslim terrorist. "There's a lot of evidence that would lead reasonable people to believe that this was potentially an act of terrorism," Representative Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, senior GOP member of the intelligence committee, said on Tuesday. A Senator from Texas told Obama the same thing. "As more and more facts surrounding the Fort Hood attack surface," Republican Senator John Cornyn said in a letter to Obama that was released on Tuesday, "it looks increasingly probable that the alleged attacker, Major Nidal Hasan, heeded [Internet-based] terrorist calls to violence, compelled by a fanatical religious ideology." Cornyn stressed that while Islam isn't to blame for such attacks, comments like those allegedly made by Hasan in class should be investigated "regardless of whose particular sensitivities might be offended."

Several classmates suggested that Hasan seemed ill-suited for the Master's in Public Health Program at the Pentagon's medical school, where he was enrolled from 2007 to 2008. Unlike most of the 50 people enrolled, Hasan went straight into the program from his residency at Walter Reed, the Army's flagship hospital. That meant he had spent nearly a decade — medical school, residency and the fellowship — largely as a student before heading to the Texas Army post in July. "The American taxpayer gave this guy advanced degrees, and the bastard murdered 13 people," says the first classmate.

Hasan's very presence at the facility struck some older and more experienced classmates as strange. "We were asking, 'Why is this guy in this program?' " a third officer says. "He was straight out of his residency, he didn't seem very qualified and he didn't seem very academically rigorous." The officer also claims that reports from colleagues at Walter Reed suggested that Hasan had "had problems in his residency with discipline and problems interacting with patients."

And then there were concerns raised by the political beliefs that Hasan espoused. "He wore his rigid Islam ideology on his sleeve and weaved it throughout his coursework," says the third classmate. "He would be standing there in uniform pledging allegiance to the Koran."

The third classmate says he witnessed at least three oral presentations by Hasan over the course of a year that focused on the morality of Muslims, war and justification for suicide bombers. "People were giving presentations on air quality or water quality, but he'd be full of psychobabble about how the persecution of Muslims justifies suicide bombers," the officer says. After a while, Hasan's classmates "would just roll our eyes saying, 'Here we go again.' "

Hasan's classmates say they cut him slack because he didn't scare them. The balding, chunky officer "wasn't an in-your-face, antagonistic, intimidating sort of person," the third classmate says. "He was almost serene, which probably explains why people weren't so alarmed by him." But his personality had a flip side: "You could tell he knew what he was doing when he provoked by saying these kinds of things," the third classmate says. "He was very rational, very studied about what he was saying and doing, and you could tell he knew he was intentionally being provocative."

The first classmate also complains about Hasan leaving lessons to pray: "He'd disrupt class by sitting in front and leaving for prayer. When one of us asked him to please sit in the back of the class so it wouldn't disrupt the rest of us when he left, he just looked at him with scorn." Hasan disdained gathering with his fellow students outside class, and they believe he failed to attend their master's graduation ceremony in mid-2008.

The classmates dispute the suggestion, in the immediate wake of the shooting, that Hasan's counseling of returning combat vets might have given him "PTSD by proxy." They say his Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress fellowship was essentially a full-time job, meaning Hasan saw relatively few patients in the two years before he headed for Fort Hood. His particular fellowship focused on "preventive/disaster psychiatry," according to the center's website. "This two-year program is designed to provide military psychiatrists with expertise," it says, "on preparing for, and responding to, mass casualty events."