Senate inquiry into Ft. Hood misplaced

Sen. Joe Lieberman insists on pushing ahead with a Senate inquiry into the mass murder at Ft. Hood, despite White House and Pentagon anxieties that the probe could compromise the prosecution of alleged killer Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan.

It’s always interesting to see how many friends due process has in times of extreme stress. Given what looks like the security authorities’ wretched mishandling of the Hasan case -- the guy appears to have done everything but paste an “Osama bin Laden Rocks” bumper sticker on his car -- there’s every reason for the administration and the FBI to want to put off a legislative reckoning for as long as possible. “We want to guarantee everyone a fair trial” is always good cover. But in this case, it has the additional virtue of being true.

For Lieberman’s part, the Connecticut independent -- funny how that latter noun seems synonymous with “opportunist” in his case -- has an unerring instinct for plucking the political moment’s low-hanging fruit. The chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs told Fox News that he wants to know whether Hasan’s signs of “Islamic extremism” were “missed or ignored.”

Those of us who have followed this terrible story can answer “yes” -- a conclusion we’ve reached even without the benefit of subpoena power. But these aren’t questions that should be addressed in the politically charged, highly partisan atmosphere of Capitol Hill.

Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates this week ordered an emergency investigation into all aspects of the massacre. Two outsiders -- former Army and Veterans Affairs Secretary Togo West and retired Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Vernon Clark -- will conduct the probe. Gates charged them with looking into not only the obvious security lapses but also the military’s handling of Hasan’s career in the years leading up to the shootings that left 13 dead and dozens more wounded. West is particularly suited to the task: When media reports several years ago revealed systemic mistreatment of severely wounded veterans of the Iraq War at Walter Reed and other military rehabilitation facilities, it was West, a one-time Clinton administration official, who was recruited to straighten things out.

West and Clark should give particular scrutiny to Hasan’s career as a military psychiatrist. Such an inquiry may not be as rhetorically sexy as those involving terrorism or Islamic extremism, but it is critical to the issue of whether veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are receiving anything close to the sort of treatment they deserve from military health services.

The best reporting being done on this aspect of the Hasan debacle is that of National Public Radio correspondent Daniel Zwerdling. This week, for example, he obtained a 2007 report on Hasan’s fitness by Maj. Scott Moran, then the Army doctor supervising psychiatrists at Walter Reed, where the alleged killer was then working. As NPR summarized the evaluation, Hasan’s superiors believed he was “an incompetent psychiatrist and an unprofessional officer who often neglected his duties and his patients.”

Zwerdling quoted from the evaluation: “The faculty has serious concerns about Capt. Hasan’s professionalism and work ethic. He demonstrates a pattern of poor judgment and a lack of professionalism.” According to Zwerdling, “the memo shows that Hasan proselytized to patients. He mishandled a homicidal patient. He allowed her to escape from the emergency room. The memo shows that when Hasan was supposed to be on call for emergencies, he didn’t even answer the phone.”

According to NPR, Hassan’s colleagues described him as “disconnected from other people,” and more than one speculated that he might be psychotic. Several reported his obsessive fixation on Islamic religiosity; one reportedly officially raised the issue of whether that religious fanaticism might trigger an act of betrayal, and another colleague raised the possibility that he might be capable of the sort of fratricide of which he is now accused.

Now call me old-fashioned, but before we get to questions of intelligence-gathering or monitoring potential terrorists, I’d like to know how the Army allowed a possibly psychotic psychiatrist in the grip of a hostile religious mania to treat servicemen and women suffering with the most intimate wounds combat can inflict. Was the process of removing him deemed too legally burdensome? Was he given a pass because his superiors feared accusations of bias against a religious Muslim?

We need answers to those questions; we need them now -- and answering them won’t compromise Hasan’s right to a fair trial.