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Gates: Fort Hood Probe Raises ‘Troubling Questions’ on Warning Signs

November 19, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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As a Senate Committee began the first hearing into the shooting attack at Fort Hood, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced the launch of a Pentagon review of the circumstances around the shootings. Judy Woodruff speaks with two reporters for an update.
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JIM LEHRER: Next tonight: the Fort Hood story.

Defense Secretary Gates today announced the Pentagon would launch several investigations into the killing of 13 soldiers and civilians two weeks ago. An Army psychiatrist has been charged in the murders.

ROBERT GATES, U.S. Secretary of Defense: The shootings at Fort Hood raise a number of troubling questions that demand complete but prompt answers.

We do not enter this process with any preconceived notions. However, it is prudent to determine immediately whether there are internal weaknesses or procedural shortcomings in the department that could make us vulnerable in the future.

JIM LEHRER: Gates said the investigations could last six months. And he cautioned Pentagon officials not to talk publicly about the case against Major Nidal Hasan.

Judy Woodruff has more on the story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, for that, we turn to two reporters who have been covering the story, Yochi Dreazen of “The Wall Street Journal” and Daniel Zwerdling of National Public Radio.

Thank you both for being with us.

Yochi Dreazen, to you first.

They announced several different investigations, different timetables. Help us understand what the time — what the differences are.

YOCHI DREAZEN, “The Wall Street Journal”: Sure. They basically announced two investigations. One is a 45-day investigation looking at the immediate causes of this particular attack, whether violent extremists in the ranks of the military could be better identified, whether U.S. bases are sufficiently secure.

That’s going to be a 45-day review. As part of that, there will be a fairly significant Army review looking at how Major Hasan’s career was handled from the beginning pretty much until the Fort Hood assault that he’s allegedly responsible for. That will look very heavily at whether officials at Walter Reed who had concerns about Major Hasan should have done more to raise alarms about him to others in the military.

Separately from that, there will be a four- to six-month long-term review that looks at systemic flaws within the Pentagon. This is not necessarily tied to this case specifically, but will look at whether there’s too much stress on mental health practitioners like Major Hasan, whether the medical system within the military is good enough at rating its people.

So, this will be not specifically tied to this, but, rather, trying to find other flaws that are not necessarily a short-term immediate problem, but could be a problem if left untreated for a long time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Yochi Dreazen, who’s doing the investigation? Who’s running all this?

YOCHI DREAZEN: It’s interesting. They chose two insiders. They chose Togo West, who had been a former secretary of the Army and then later secretary of veterans affairs, and a Navy admiral named Vernon Clark, who had ran the Navy from 2000 to 2005, very much people who are well-versed in the military culture, well-versed in the Pentagon bureaucracy, kind of quintessential insiders in many ways.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the question one is already hearing about whether the military can investigate itself, what do they say about that?

YOCHI DREAZEN: This — they would say that this is one part of that investigation. Congress is investigating the military’s handling of it. The White House is doing a broader information of the way every branch of the government, including the military, worked.

This one is meant to be a self-assessment. There will also be assessments from outside the military, but that’s not the point of this probe.

Warning signs missed

Daniel Zwerdling
National Public Radio
Supervisors there had such uncomfortable feelings about his performance, that they actually started talking last year: Do we think that he might be psychotic?

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, well, I'm going to back to you in just a minute.

But, meanwhile, Daniel Zwerdling, your reporting has turned up some interesting early warning signs about Major Hasan while he was training to be a doctor at Walter Reed Hospital.

DANIEL ZWERDLING, National Public Radio: Troubling warning signs. Let's start in the spring of 2007.

Nidal Hasan was at Walter Reed. He was in his fourth year as a psychiatrist there. And a new boss comes in named Major Scott Moran, the head of all the residents at Walter Reed. He goes through the files of his 50 some residents, as any good boss does. And he comes across Nidal Hasan's file and says, why is this guy still here? Why didn't -- why wasn't he gotten rid of before? We have got to get rid of him now.

There was a long pattern with Nidal Hasan that had nothing to do with his preoccupation with Islam or his extremist religious beliefs. It was just that, in his supervisors' view and his colleagues' view, he was a bad psychiatrist.

Now, picture a soldier coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan desperately needing help, suicidal. You need somebody you can trust 150 percent. But Nidal Hasan wouldn't show up for work frequently. He would be the guy on call for emergencies. And they would call him with an emergency, and he wouldn't answer the phone.

He would proselytize to patients. He botched a case of a homicidal patient in the emergency room and allowed her to escape. This is all according to a memo that the chief of the residents wrote to the credentials committee at Walter Reed in May 2007.

And, you know, it's written in that dry bureaucratese, but, basically -- I have shown it to psychiatrists, who have said to me -- at major medical centers -- if we got this in a credentials package, the applicant wouldn't even get in for an interview, let alone a job.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, this was two years before he was sent to Fort Hood. What happened to that memo?

DANIEL ZWERDLING: That memo went in the file.

And just before he, Hasan, went to Fort Hood -- and we should talk about the period in between, because some crucial decisions were made there -- but I'm told that the officials at Fort Hood sent this memo -- I mean -- excuse me -- the officials at Walter Reed sent the memo to Fort Hood specifically because they wanted Fort Hood to know what they were getting in Nidal Hasan.

Now, in between 2007 and this summer, when Nidal Hasan went to Fort Hood, he went to a fellowship program, a related institution. It's the military's medical university. And supervisors there had such uncomfortable feelings about his performance, that they actually started talking last year: Do we think that he might be psychotic?

They actually had these kinds of discussions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, so, again, what was done with this information? Is it -- I mean, is it possible to know? How much are they talking about that?

DANIEL ZWERDLING: My sources say that some of senior psychiatrists got together, talked with an Army official about: What should we do about Nidal Hasan?

And the Army officials said: Let's send him to Fort Hood. That's our solution.

Why? Fort Hood -- there's a long tradition in the military of sending people to places when they're problem employees, problem soldiers, where they can sort of disappear. Fort Hood happens to have a bigger mental health staff than many Army bases. And it's reputed to have a pretty good mental health staff.

So, the thinking was, if we send Nidal Hasan to Fort Hood, he might improve and he will be a benefit. He will be one more body. But if he's as bad as he's been the last six years, at least we have mental health specialists there who can sort of monitor him and make sure he doesn't do any bad.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But no steps were taken to try to move him out of the military...

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Well, actually...

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... move him out of a position where he would be treating...

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Well, thanks for reminding me, because this is one of the most striking parts of the story.

In spring 2007, the same boss who took over the residency program, who wrote this memo, said: I want to get rid of Nidal Hasan now.

And he went to the big committee over him. It's called the Graduate Medical Education Committee. They have to approve it. And my sources say he was told: Hey, back off. You have to go through a lot of due process to get rid of a doctor. He can hire a lawyer. Hasan can hire a lawyer. There will be hearings. It will be a long, drawn-out mess. He's going to go to his fellowship now. Let's hope he does better at that institution. Pass him along.

Potential firings ahead

Yochi Dreazen
Wall Street Journal
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, as we know, is not someone who has shied away from firing people before.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yochi Dreazen, I'm going to come back to you.

Presumably, what -- the kind of material information that Daniel Zwerdling is finding out is going to be part of those investigations.

YOCHI DREAZEN: That's right.

I mean, that will be specifically part of the Army investigation. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, as we know, is not someone who has shied away from firing people before. During the previous Walter Reed scandal, he fired the -- the hospital -- the then Army secretary. And when the Air Force botched some nuclear parts, he fired a lot of people in the Air Force.

So, there is a feeling within the military that this may well lead to another round of firings, again centered potentially at Walter Reed, because Daniel Zwerdling's reporting, that was not communicated elsewhere in the Army.

The Army has a counterterror branch. The Army has a criminal investigative branch. Those are the kinds of people that should have been getting concerns about Major Hasan. And they were not given those kind of concerns.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Can I add something, though?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sure.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: I have been reporting about this general issue for the last several years now. I have traveled to bases around the country.

One of the most frequent reports I get from Marines and soldiers who come back from the war who desperately need help is that they have such trouble getting it. We know the problems of commanders saying, you're weak-minded, you know.

But let's put that aside. When they go to the mental health center, there's a huge shortage of mental health specialists. And, so, I mean, the problem is so systemic, the military has such a giant problem with its mental health system, that a couple more reports are going to be only a tiny step towards solving that problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, yet, they sent someone with this record to Fort Hood to treat these returning...

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Just months ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Daniel Zwerdling, Yochi Dreazen, thank you, both.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Thank you.

YOCHI DREAZEN: Thank you.