Gates: Defense Dept. will review Ft. Hood

Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Thursday announced a broad Pentagon review in the aftermath of the Fort Hood shooting rampage as a key lawmaker decried the attack as an act of homegrown terrorism.

Gates made his announcement after the first public congressional hearing into the shootings concluded.

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Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, has been charged by military authorities with 13 counts of premeditated murder in connection with the shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, on Nov. 5. More than 30 people were also injured when Hasan opened fire on the Army base.

Hasan, a Muslim, had communicated with a radical Islamic cleric before his attacks, which had drawn scrutiny from lawmakers.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) on Thursday said he believes the incident, “based on available evidence, was a terrorist attack.”

Lieberman made that comment at a hearing on the attack by the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, on which he serves as chairman.

Gates on Thursday refused to characterize Hasan’s shooting rampage as a “terrorist attack.”

“I’m just not going to go there,” Gates told reporters. “I am, first of all, as — as the senior person in the departmental chain of command, I am the least able to render opinions on these kinds of issues. I’m going to wait until the facts are in and we’ll — and we’ll let the military justice system take care of it.”

At the same time, he said he found it “disturbing” that Hasan had e-mail communications with Anwar al-Awlaki, an imam in Yemen reportedly linked to people who committed terrorist attacks.

Gates, however, refused to draw any conclusion about that information until he gathered all the pertinent facts.

Former Army Secretary Togo West and former Chief of Naval Operations Vern Clark will be in charge of the Pentagon’s review, Gates said. The 45-day review will look into possible gaps in identifying service members who could pose a threat to others. It also will assess personnel, health and counseling programs and will examine whether U.S. military bases have the necessary security and whether they have the ability to respond to mass casualty incidents.

“We do not enter this process with any preconceived notions,” he said in a press conference. “However, it is prudent to determine immediately whether there are internal weaknesses or procedural shortcomings in the department that could make us vulnerable in the future.”

Gates also tasked the Army with conducting a more in-depth assessment of whether Army programs, policies and procedures “reasonably could have prevented the shooting.”

Gates stressed that he has “every confidence” in the Army’s ability to investigate itself and that the review is taking a broader perspective because the issues it would be looking into are not limited to the Army.

“All of the services potentially have some of the same problems that the Army’s trying to deal with,” he said.

The initial 45-day review will inform and shape “a department-wide follow-on examination of any systemic institutional shortcomings,” Gates said. That examination would be completed within four to six months, he said.

“This more in-depth review will entail each service selecting an investigative panel. These panels will in turn report their findings to a DoD-level panel, which will assess the findings and identify needed changes in policy and procedure, as well as areas where additional resources are required,” he said.

The department-wide review will examine military support programs, care for victims and families of mass casualty events and assessments of the healthcare providers’ performance as well as the overall stress on troops and their families.

“In all of these, I promise the Department of Defense’s full and open disclosure,” Gates said.

Meanwhile, Gates cautioned that senior Pentagon leaders have to be careful not to make statements that in any way would influence the ongoing military inquiry into the shooting and legal proceedings. That process needs to be completed “without outside interference and must be conducted in a fair and impartial manner,” Gates said.

Lieberman’s committee was the only congressional panel that did not heed President Barack Obama’s call to hold off on investigations. As a result, no government officials testified. Instead, a former homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush, Frances Townsend, testified of her concerns that federal authorities had missed warning signs on Hasan.

Lieberman said his panel’s probe would look to gather three different sets of facts: whether Hasan’s colleagues’ concerns about his political views were conveyed up the chain of command and recorded in his personnel files; what information the Joint Terrorism Task Forces headed by the FBI have on Hasan and whether they attempted to investigate him based on his e-mail traffic; and whether that information was shared with anyone at the Pentagon or within the government.

Lieberman said he asked Attorney General Eric Holder and Gates on Wednesday to allow employees under their command to testify. Lieberman said both men said they respected the need for a congressional inquiry as long as it did not hamper the federal criminal investigation.

J. Taylor Rushing contributed to this report.