Senators losing patience in Fort Hood probe, threaten subpoenas

The administration is wary of allowing Sens. Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins open access to front-line agents in their investigation into the Fort Hood shootings, which left 13 people dead.

By , Staff writer

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    Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I) of Connecticut and Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine are urging the Defense Department to take firmer steps to combat the threat of Islamist extremism within military ranks. They say current Pentagon procedures are inadequate to head off attacks like the shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, on Nov. 5, 2009.
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Top congressional leaders are demanding the Obama administration cooperate with their investigation into the shooting at Fort Hood, threatening to subpoena officials if the government continues to “frustrate” their efforts.

Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I) of Connecticut and Susan Collins (R) of Maine, chairman and ranking member of the Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, are demanding records, witnesses, and other data to help them piece together how the government missed what some believe were clear warning signs that something was amiss.

Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, has been charged in the Nov. 5, 2009, rampage on Fort Hood army base that killed 13 service members.

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Fear of undermining prosecution case

While the FBI and Defense Department have provided the congressional committee with some information, it has been limited. Both Justice and Defense departments cite concerns that releasing certain information could undermine the integrity of the case against Hasan.

“The administration claims that this information could compromise its prosecution of Major Hasan and that congressional interviews of front-line agents would chill the conduct of intelligence and law enforcement activities,” Senator Lieberman told reporters on Capitol Hill Thursday. “We strenuously disagree.”

Lieberman said the response from the Obama administration to provide the committee with additional records and witnesses to the event has been “inadequate and unreasonable.” Next Monday is their high noon, when the two senators said they will issue subpoenas for the information.

“Congress must fully understand this example of home-based terrorism in order to find ways to help prevent it from occurring in the future,” said Senator Collins. “And in order to perform our vital oversight function, we must have the cooperation of administration officials.”

Fort Hood prompted some changes

Lieberman noted the Pentagon’s “coincidental” announcement today of several changes it was making as a result of the Fort Hood shooting. These include expanding an FBI pilot program that would allow Defense Department employees to report threats or suspicious activities.

The Pentagon said it was making the changes to help eliminate some of the “gaps and deficiencies” that contributed to the shooting at Fort Hood.

The program is designed to be accessed by multiple agencies to prevent some of the lack of information-sharing that apparently contributed to the shooting. The Pentagon will also increase a database that allows organizations across the department to see information about criminal investigations or other data in a single place.

The Department is also applying other “lessons learned” from the Fort Hood attack, including practices on workplace violence and “active shooter awareness training.”

The actions follow a Pentagon-led report by former Army Secretary Togo West and former Chief of Naval Operations Vern Clark that included 79 recommendations.

The actions the Pentagon announced Thursday represent some 26 of those recommendations; the remaining ones are still under review.

Pentagon and Justice push back

The position of the Pentagon and the Justice Department is that personnel records can’t be released to the Homeland Security Committee, and also that they would not make “front-line” FBI agents and other investigators available because they don’t think that level of employee should be accountable to congress.

In a letter to Lieberman and Collins this week, assistant secretary of defense Elizabeth King and assistant attorney general Ronald Weich wrote: “We believe that the additional records and access to employees requested in your letter would pose inevitable, unacceptable risks to our prosecution…. We understand that your staff may disagree with our assessments about these risks, but the responsibility for a fair and effective prosecution rests with us alone.”

But members of congress want to know why the shooting happened in the first place, saying that an independent investigation by Congress is still warranted.

For example, Hasan communicated by e-mail with a radical cleric in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki, prior to the attacks. A joint terrorism task force was aware of this, but did not inform the Defense Department, said Lieberman. On the other hand, there were defense officials on that task force who in fact did know about the e-mails.

“That’s just one reason why there’s need for an independent congressional investigation,” Lieberman said.

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