Online comments on a left-leaning fan web site allegedly written by the head of a crucial brain testing program for the Army are being reviewed by the service for potential violations of political and hate speech rules that apply to Pentagon employees.
Former Lt. Col. Michael Russell currently heads an Army program that assesses whether service members have developed traumatic brain injuries while at war, and was previously involved in the Army's suicide prevention program. The Army says Russell may be sanctioned if the service determines his messages online can be categorized as "hate speech," or if he violated the Hatch Act, a U.S. federal law that prohibits civil servants in the executive branch from partisan political activity.
"You...are SCUM for supporting these thugs," reads one of the posts Russell allegedly wrote on the site in September 2010. The post was directed at another forum user with whom Russell appeared to disagree about the actions of the Bush administration. "I couldn't give less of a flying [expletive] what your syphilitic, blackened EVIL brain thinks about a god [expletive] thing. [Expletive]. Die in agony and then roast in hell."
Russell allegedly posted the messages in question on an unofficial fan forum devoted to news about liberal commentator Keith Olbermann, though users of the site often share and discuss other far left political news. KeithOlbermann.org, which was long maintained by Russell, has more than 3,000 registered members today.
Over the last few years, Russell allegedly posted regularly on the Olbermann fan site, first using the username "Michael," and later, "Lazarus." At times, he appeared to use the site as a platform to criticize the Army. In one post, he appeared to recruit people to work for him at his Army lab. He also allegedly went on the site to bash conservatives, an activity first noticed by the conservative site The Daily Caller.
The Army does "not routinely comment publicly" on personnel matters "regarding discipline," according to Army spokesman Maj. Justin Platt. But Platt, who has seen the messages supposedly posted by Russell, says that while the Army Medical Command "has insufficient information at this point" to determine if Russell will be sanctioned, the Army is currently reviewing the material on the site to "determine if further action or inquiry is appropriate."
If the Army does sanction Russell, it may be in part because his position affects the health of troops who suffer from one of the signature wounds of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And although Russell left active duty in November 2010, he was immediately rehired to the same job as a civilian, and he still holds that position today, the Army confirmed.
The so-called Automated Neuropsychological Assessment Metrics, or ANAM, program Russell oversees tests service members on their cognitive brain functions both before they go to war and after they come back. The program is designed to identify troops who have developed traumatic brain injuries in combat. According to a report by the Government Accountability Office, more than 200,000 troops have been afflicted with TBI since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began after 9/11.
Russell was also previously involved in the Army's Warrior Resiliency Program, a suicide prevention program for service members, and recently authored a chapter for the Army on lessons learned from suicide prevention efforts.
While Platt notes that military members like Russell have the right to free speech, he says that the use of certain partisan political speech can be subject to sanctions under the Hatch Act. According to one provision of the act, civil servants "may not post a comment to a blog or a social media site that advocates for or against a partisan political party, candidate for partisan political office, or partisan political group."
Russell's political comments on the fan site appear to stretch back at least to 2009—while he was still on active duty. In June 2012, during the recall election of Republican Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, 'Michael' commented that he hoped Walker "burns in hell." To those who supported Walker on the fan site, 'Michael' called them "pigs" and said they had "corrupted the country." "You are probably some paid shill the Koch brother pay to spam our forum with lies," 'Michael' wrote.
In a brief conversation with U.S. News, Russell confirmed that he posted under the username 'Michael' and later 'Lazarus.'
In what may be the most problematic post, 'Michael' wrote a message in June 2010 trying to hire people to work for a number of positions in the Army, including a research assistant, research psychologist, and a neuropsychology technician. 'Michael' wrote that he was able to place people worldwide, and noted that he especially needed to hire someone at the Keesler Air Force Base in Gulfport, Miss.—a base that has dealt with its share of traumatic brain injuries.
"I am in a position to offer a high paying job right this second, now. It will be gone in a week," 'Michael' wrote, saying he had already offered one member of the forum "obscene amounts of cash to move."
"I ordinarily want people with a medical background, a former behavioral science specialist or combat medic with a degree in psychology," 'Michael' said, but then suggested he could relax the entry requirements for those on the site. It is unclear whether Russell actually hired anyone off of the fan site to work in these brain testing roles, or if he was authorized to make those hires. Army spokesman Platt notes that Russell could also be sanctioned for non-political messages he wrote online. Sanctions could occur if the Army determines Russell used "hate speech," "speech that threatens violence in the workplace," or "speech that abets or solicits misconduct," Platt says.
In a post in March 2009, for example, 'Michael' ridiculed a forum user as being "unemployed... with a disabling anxiety disorder. That lives with his mother."
Some of Russell's other alleged posts are simply troubling. In March 2009, 'Michael' described his job years ago as a police officer, where he said he orchestrated a number of beatings of criminals to make it appear as if the criminal started the fight.
"When I was a cop, I was not a particularly nice man," 'Michael' wrote that month. "There is an art to 'flaming' a scumbag. You really want to beat the [expletive] out of someone, but there are cameras watching you, so they have to make it the first punch. You can just stare at them sometimes and that will do it, body language can do it—they have this prison yard macho thing and can't let themselves back down. Then once they try to hit you, the game is on."
Over the last two years, Russell's alleged postings on the fan site have grown more infrequent. It is unclear whether the Army became aware of Russell's participation on the site, or if he simply lost interest.
In August 2012, a month before the Daily Caller story, a message appeared on the site that said KeithOlbermann.org was being discontinued, but the site is still up and running. Russell, however, no longer seems to be posting there, at least not under the moniker of 'Michael' or 'Lazarus.' In his brief conversation with U.S. News, Russell said he has "decided to be no longer active on the site."
Some of the users 'Michael' attacked still remain, including the user 'Michael' wrote had a "syphilitic, blackened EVIL brain." That user, who did not respond to request for comment, did write a response to 'Michael' online: "I would think that as a mental health professional you should try a little of your own medicine."
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