Did Alleged Fort Hood Shooter Warn Of Violence? - Part II

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Tom Ricks recently wrote about the Fort Hood shooting. Host Michel Martin speaks with Tom Ricks for more about his questions, and answers he hopes to hear.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

Now we go to Tom Ricks. He is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author of several bestselling books about the military. He writes the Best Defense blog at foreignpolicy.com. This week, he wrote a post called five questions about the Fort Hood shooting. Tom, thanks for joining us.

TOM RICKS: You're welcome.

MARTIN: Tom, all of these questions have become actually more relevant in the wake of new reporting. For example, NPR's Daniel Zwerdling reported yesterday that Major Hasan's supervisors was very concerned about his performance and even discussed whether he might be psychotic, but that they thought the bureaucratic process for trying to get rid of him was too complex.

So, I want to go to the first question you ask in your blog. You say that the shooter was a low performer. Why was he shuffled along instead of simply being let go? And then the second question you ask is, was he not let go for fear of appearing prejudiced? So when I ask you to put two of those things together, do you find that to be common in your reporting on the military that people who are not strong performers, they're just, for some reason, that there's no willingness to actually address it squarely, regardless of ethnicity or the circumstance?

RICKS: Yeah, on the first issue just low performers, there is a famous little dirty trick in the military of dumping your low performers on other units, getting rid of them. And there are certain places you find these guys just wash up. This especially set off my alarm bells when I read that the shooter was down in Fort Hood basically in a paperwork job. It sounded to me like somebody had said, look, this guy should not be actually counseling soldiers. He's a nut. We'll just have him fill out paperwork somewhere.

MARTIN: And then the second question is, was he not let go for fear of appearing prejudiced? Why do you ask that?

RICKS: Because this wasn't just your average Muslim soldier. There are a lot of great Muslim soldiers in the U.S. military. We want them there. We need them there. They're good. Diversity is a strength of the Army especially. What you don't want is crazy Muslim terrorists wearing the uniform of the U.S. Army. And that's what seemed to happen here.

There are a lot of signals here. The great reporting that Zwerdling has done, that Dana Priest has done, they show when there were warning signs at least in Walter Reed. Then you have the fact that this guy is playing footsie with an Islamic extremist advocate of terrorism, a radical cleric living in Yemen.

MARTIN: Well, I don't know that his supervisors at Walter Reed would have been in a specific position to know that.

RICKS: No, not at all.

MARTIN: But here's the question I have for you is, but why is it - why do you think it's fear of being prejudiced as opposed to that he had an in-demand skill set or profile, I mean, for example, you and I have worked in some newsrooms where we've encountered some very obnoxious people. And is it that people are afraid of offending them or that they are perceived to be so in demand that people are (unintelligible).

RICKS: People who are obnoxious, you and I can probably think of a couple. It's because I've got notes from people in the military who said, look, you try to get rid of this guy and it turns into another Chaplain Yee situation. It's egg on our face. You guys in the media would all write stories saying Muslim psychiatrist fired for practicing, well, being a Muslim. And I think there is a fear.

The military is a large conformist organization. They don't like to have the flashlight turned in their direction, especially in rare areas, you know, like support areas. They are more comfortable with having the media at the front lines of combat. But getting into their personnel issues and decisions makes them extremely uneasy.

MARTIN: Finally, Tom, you said that if Army officers are worried about a backlash against Muslim troops, the best way to address it would be to reassure soldiers that the Army is uncovering and dismissing Muslim extremists who veer into extremism. We only have about a minute and a half left and I apologize because it's a complex question. But can they do that while respecting different perspectives, because the fact is our soldiers still do have First Amendment Rights. They do have the right to have beliefs that might be uncomfortable for some.

RICKS: Oh, absolutely. The Army is actually pretty good at doing this in the enlisted ranks. I've seen officers, you know, speak to the soldiers, you know, get that Nazi crap off your wall. You cannot have a swastika up on your wall. We don't tolerate that kind of behavior, that kind of talk in the U.S. military. Where the Army is less good is in policing the ranks of officers. And especially in specialized things like chaplains or medical people, doctors and psychiatrists.

And I think that's why they were blindsided here. They're not accustomed to looking. But I think it would reassure other soldiers that the Army was not asleep at the wheel as it seems to be in this case.

MARTIN: Do you have any other questions after the five questions that you asked and for those who want to read your whole piece, we'll certainly have a link on our Web site. Any other questions that you have in the wake of what you've now learned? I guess the question I have for you, do you think its ethnicity and religion or do you think it's really more about rank?

RICKS: I think it's more fear - it's the Army's fear of getting slammed for looking prejudiced. I think that really may have been the basic problem here.

MARTIN: Tom Ricks writes The Best Defense blog for foreignpolicy.com. He's the author most recently of "The Gamble: General Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008." Before that, the best selling "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq." He joined us from his home office. Thank you, Tom.

RICKS: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: We want to mention if you want to read more of NPR's coverage of the aftermath of the Fort Hood shooting incident, especially correspondent Daniel Zwerdling's reports that we were just talking about, please go to our Web site at npr.org. Just ahead, the second part of our conversation about political correctness. Are Muslims unwilling to call out dissident or disturbed elements within their community? Two views in a moment, coming up next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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