The Senate Homeland Security Committee Thursday began hearings "as serious and consequential as any it's ever undertaken," in the words of its chairman Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I) of Connecticut, into whether and how the Army missed the red flags raised by the apparent self-radicalization of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan.
President Obama has warned against politicizing ongoing investigations into the incident – and Senator Lieberman has said he won't – but the hearings already appears fraught with politics.
"The problem is that in the hyperpartisan atmosphere on Capitol Hill at present, any congressional inquiry is likely to degenerate into a round of finger-pointing, fueled by turf rivalries between law enforcement and intelligence agencies and efforts for party advantage," writes Shaun Waterman, a security analyst at ISN Security Watch.
The Democratic Congress seems likely to take a closer look at the administration's security policy, which it has largely left alone so far. And Republican Rep. Peter Hoekstra has already warned intelligence agencies from shredding evidence in the case.
But the real powder keg lies in Lieberman's likely inquiry into whether some of Hasan's colleagues and supervisors ignored his radicalism – and why. If it is found that Army officials ignored the warning signs around Hasan because they were concerned about offending Muslims, that could be used as a weapon by conservatives and others unhappy with Obama's move to reach out to the Muslim world.
Part of the administration's strategy, which includes being more careful in the use of phrases such as "jihad" and "war on terror," is to undermine a central motive for radicalization: the idea that the US is in a war against Islam itself.
Some say the White House's opposition to the Senate probe isn't really a concern about political theater as much as staving off any scrutiny of its terrorism policy shift. After all, the "mega show" of 9/11 trials in New York "makes a Fort Hood probe look like a kindergarten's game," Walid Phares, director of the Future Terrorism Project at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, says in an e-mail.
But "if a Congressional investigation ends up incriminating an ideology, this will connect the dots with all other homegrown terror plots, already stopped but not linked to each other," he says, "In short, the Obama administration seems to have decided strategically to disengage from the ideological battle with jihadism. Any action that would indict this doctrine will put pressure to reverse that policy."
A few have criticized the White House's choice of Homeland Security adviser John Brennan as the point person for the Fort Hood investigation. It was Mr. Brennan who in a major speech in August articulated the administration's views on Islamic terror.
"President Obama does not see this challenge as a fight against 'jihadists,' " he said. "Describing terrorists in this way – using a legitimate term, 'jihad,' meaning to purify oneself or to wage a holy struggle for a moral goal – risks giving these murderers the religious legitimacy they desperately seek but in no way deserve."
Others believe Lieberman's investigation is "too little, too soon."
"It won't feature much senatorial sleuthing, not only because of the absence of government witnesses but also because Lieberman, rightly, says he won't question witnesses to the shootings," the Los Angeles Times writes in an editorial. "Thus, the hearing can't shed much light on whether Hasan was, in Lieberman's words, an 'Islamist extremist.' "
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