By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO, March 18 (Reuters) - Three Republican members of Congress have asked Attorney General Eric Holder if the Justice Department pressured the military to charge the suspect in the 2009 Fort Hood massacre as a criminal instead of as a foreign terrorist.
Texas Republicans Michael McCaul and John Carter and Virginia Republican Frank Wolf sent a letter to Holder on Friday, saying they were concerned about intelligence failures leading up to the massacre "as well as the Obama Administration's response to the attack -- particularly the misguided decision not to charge Maj. Nidal Hasan as a terrorist for his brutal, al-Qaeda-inspired assault on Fort Hood."
A Justice Department spokesman declined on Monday to comment.
The members of Congress asked for names of any staffers responsible for creating or reviewing communications or policy statements after the attack.
Hasan, the Army psychiatrist accused of being the lone gunman in the Nov. 5, 2009 massacre, was charged as a criminal defendant in a military court in March 2010. Thirteen were killed and 31 were wounded in the massacre, the worst shooting ever at a U.S. military facility.
Dozens of relatives of those killed, as well as some of the wounded, have filed administrative claims against the Army, seeking more than $750 million in total damages. They charged that the Army knew about his beliefs yet did nothing to stop him.
The lawmakers, in the letter, asked if the Justice Department or the Pentagon sought guidance from the White House in making the decision not to classify Hasan as a terrorist, and to classify the attack, which left 13 dead and dozens wounded at the U.S. Army post in Texas, as an act of "workplace violence" instead of terrorism.
The letter also quoted Army Secretary John McHugh on the ABC news program Nightline saying that those wounded in the shooting would not receive the Purple Heart medal, which is awarded to U.S. soldiers who suffer wounds "in the face of the enemy," because Hasan was not considered a "foreign terrorist."
According to the transcript provided by the lawmakers in their letter to Holder, McHugh went on to explain the military's decision not to charge Hasan as a foreign terrorist: "I'm not an attorney and I don't run the Justice Department. But we're told it would have a profound effect on the ability to conduct the trial."
Hasan's case is being heard in a military court, which is under the authority of the Department of Defense and not the Department of Justice. The military uses a different set of rules than civilian courts and has its own appellate court system.
"We were surprised and troubled by Secretary McHugh's comment implying that the Justice Department may have been providing direction to the Defense Department on whether or not (Hasan) should be charged or otherwise labeled as a terrorist," the congressmen wrote.
Geoffrey Corn, a retired Lieutenant Colonel Army Judge Advocate General who is now a professor of law at South Texas College of Law in Houston, said that meddling in charges is a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
"One of the cornerstones of the military justice system is that we don't allow others to call base commanders and say, 'This is what we want charged,'" he said. "That's illegal."
Hasan is currently awaiting court martial at Fort Hood. Another hearing in his case is set for Wednesday. (Editing by James B. Kelleher and Corrie MacLaggan. Additional reporting by David Ingram.)