By Charley Keyes
CNN Senior National Security Producer
A U.S. Army General Wednesday approved a possible death penalty in the future military trial of Major Nidal Hasan, the American Muslim accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas.
Lt. Gen. Donald Campbell, the Fort Hood commander, formally announced that the charges against Hasan will be tried as capital offenses. His decision means that if a jury of military officers finds Hasan guilty, then the death penalty is a possible sentence. And this moves the case forward and also eliminates the possibility that Hasan, a psychiatrist, could enter a guilty plea and prevent a costly and lengthy trial.
And this latest green light for the Hasan court martial comes just days after the Obama Administration point man on terrorism cited the Fort Hood massacre as a example of how overseas extremists were inciting terrorist acts inside the U.S.
A court martial could be months away, and despite comments from the White House and elsewhere, Hasan is considered innocent until proven guilty under the Code of Military Justice.
A capital court martial is highly unusual. The last military execution in the United States was in 1961.
Nidal Hasan is accused of shooting to death 13 people in November, 2009 and wounding 32 more in a medical building on the country’s largest military base.
At his preliminary hearing, witness after witness identified Hasan as the person who had done the shooting and had shouted out Allah Akbar, God is great is Arabic. Hasan, who is partially parlaysed and in a wheel chair from inuries from a shootout with a police is held in a county jail near Fort Hood.
But just last week the Obama Administration’s top anti-terrorism official pointed to the Fort Hood killings as an example of how extremists overseas were inspiring or assisting violent attacks inside the United States.
“It is al Qaeda’s adherents¬—individuals, sometimes with little or no direct physical contact with al Qaeda, who have succumbed to its hateful ideology and who have engaged in, or facilitated, terrorist activities here in the United States,” John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, said in a June 29th speech in Washington.
“These misguided individuals are spurred on by the likes of al-Qaeda’s Adam Gadahn and Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, who speak English and preach violence in slick videos over the Internet,” Brennan said. “ And we have seen the tragic results, with the murder of a military recruiter in Arkansas two years ago and the attack on our servicemen and women at Fort Hood.”
Brennan said Fort Hood and the attempted Christmas 2009 airliner bombing had prompted new vigilance by U.S. intelligence. “Following the attack at Fort Hood and the failed attack over Detroit, we’ve improved the analytic process, created new groups to track threat information, and enhanced cooperation among our intelligence agencies, including better information sharing so that all threats are acted upon quickly.”
Hasan’s government appointed defense lawyer, John Galligan, has urged the military against allowing the death penalty as a possible sentence in a trial. Galligan could not immediately be reached Wednesday.
Galligan earlier has said that a non-capital trial would be quicker and cheaper. And he repeatedly has complained that he and his client have been denied full details of what U.S. intelligence agencies knew about Hasan’s contacts with overseas terrorists, including Anwar al-Alwaki, now believed to be in Yemen and the target of American drone attacks.
An investigation by two senior U.S. Senators called Hasan ‘a ticking time-bomb” and faulted both the military and federal agents for not raising the alarm sooner about his links to overseas terrorists and possible violence. "Although neither the Department of Defense nor the FBI had specific information concerning the time, place, or nature of the attack, they collectively had sufficient information to have detected Hasan's radicalization to violent Islamist extremism but failed both to understand and to act on it," that report said
Galligan had met behind closed doors with Army officials in mid-May.
"The law accepts life without the opportunity of parole as an appropriate punishment for murder," Galligan said. He described his meeting with Gen. Campbell as very cordial. "We had an opportunity to make our compelling argument that the (Hasan) case should be referred non-capital."
The Army admitted problems with how it had evaluated and promoted Hasan and dcsiplined nine officer for “administrative and leadership failures” in not spreading the alarm about Hasan before the attacks.
A statement released by Fort Hood Wednesday gave no dates for the court martial but an arraignment may come quickly.
“After a referral of a case to trial by court-martial, a military judge will receive the case and at some future date, set a schedule,” the Fort Hood statement said. “The first likely matter for a military judge to schedule in this court-martial is the arraignment of Hasan. No military judge has been named to this case at this time..”