Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) on Monday issued the first congressional subpoena of the Obama administration.
It’s rare for Congress to subpoena an administration controlled by the same party and, in doing so, Lieberman followed through on a threat he made last week. The senator, an Independent who caucuses with Democrats, has increasingly become a thorn in the side of the administration.
He has accused the administration of stalling a congressional probe into the November shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, saying the departments of Defense and Justice have turned down four requests for documents over the course of five months.
Last week Lieberman said he would take the White House to court over the issue of whether to share information about the murders, allegedly committed by Maj. Nidal Hasan.
“We regret there was no change in position,” Lieberman said on a conference call with reporters. “We have signed and are serving subpoenas today.”
Acting as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Lieberman issued the subpoenas after a noon deadline came and went with no resolution. The subpoenas were issued to Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Attorney General Eric Holder.
In a letter accompanying the subpoenas, Lieberman and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the committee’s ranking member, gave the administration until 10 a.m. on Monday, April 26 to comply.
“Unfortunately, it is impossible for us to avoid reaching the conclusion that the departments simply do not want to cooperate with our investigation. It is with great disappointment and reluctance that we have directed service of subpoenas to you which demand disclosure of the requested information. … We fully expect that your departments will fulfill their legal obligation under these subpoenas and comply by the appointed time.”
“Obviously, we’re open to discussions before then, but we think our request is quite reasonable,” Lieberman told reporters on Monday.
Senate Democratic leaders had hoped Lieberman and White House officials would be able to resolve the dispute without legal action, but neither side backed down over the weekend.
The Pentagon has been concerned that releasing the information requested by Lieberman’s committee would jeopardize the integrity of the military justice process and the criminal prosecution of Hasan.
Instead, senior Pentagon legal experts indicated that the Department of Defense has tried to offer the panel alternatives, particularly with regard to Hasan’s personnel file and potential witnesses in his trial. Pentagon officials said they tried to provide the committee with the names of people in the chain of command, who would not be potential witnesses, but would have pertinent information. The panel rejected that.
Additionally, because of privacy concerns, the panel that traditionally has jurisdiction to look into military personnel files is the Senate Armed Services Committee. Eight members of the Homeland Security Committee are also on that committee, including Lieberman and Collins. The Pentagon made the offer to view the personnel files through Armed Services, but Lieberman and Collins have not requested to view the documents as part of their Armed Services membership, the Pentagon officials said.
“We will continue to cooperate with the committee in every way, with that single caveat that whatever we provide does not impact our ability to prosecute,” said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman. “The Department has and continues to cooperate with Congress while ensuring the integrity of both our own investigation as well as the criminal investigation and prosecution of Nidal Hasan.”
The Pentagon can say no to the subpoena, but would likely try to engage Congress in trying to work out alternatives, officials said. If the Pentagon does not comply with the subpoena, Congress can ultimately issue articles of contempt, the officials noted.
Lieberman and Collins notified the Pentagon on March 23 of their subpoena threat.
Lieberman has described the murders as a potential act of terrorism because Hasan had been in contact with Islamic clerics and may have acted out of opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The administration has maintained that a congressional inquiry into the shootings would jeopardize the criminal case against Hasan, and has launched its own review of the incident.
Lieberman on Monday rejected that claim anew, saying that he and Collins plan no specific hearings to publicize the information. He also repeated his claim that the committee has held previous oversight hearings that did not affect a criminal prosecution.
Lieberman, who left the Democratic Party after losing a Senate primary in 2006, has had a tempestuous relationship with his former party.
He endorsed and vigorously campaigned for Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in the 2008 presidential campaign, and many Democrats fumed over his criticism of President Barack Obama.
Liberal Democrats were upset further with Lieberman after he fought against the public health insurance option during the healthcare debate.
Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was under pressure in January 2009 to yank Lieberman’s chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee, but decided against it — after Obama intervened and suggested Lieberman should stay.
Asked last week if his subpoena threat exemplifies a further rift with Democrats, or if his chairmanship could be jeopardized anew, Lieberman said he simply felt responsible to push the administration into compliance with his committee.
“This is so different in the sense that this is really about carrying out what I see as my responsibility as a committee chair to obtain information to complete an investigation,” he said. “To me, that’s different from taking a position on an issue on which I may disagree with the Democratic Party. And we really tried every which way to work this out, but they’ve just been stonewalling us.”