By Roxana Tiron and Jared Allen - 11/18/09 01:26 AM EST
The closed-door briefings provided by Army and FBI officials on Tuesday did little to quell a widening partisan chasm over Congress’s role in the investigations.
Some House Republicans, who had previously complained about not being adequately briefed, escalated their criticisms after meeting with government investigators.
President Barack Obama warned Congress on Saturday not to turn the shooting into “political theater.” The Senate Armed Services Committee subsequently postponed its scheduled closed-door hearing with Secretary of the Army John McHugh and Army Chief of Staff George Casey.
The panel’s chairman, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), said on Tuesday that lawmakers have to be “cautious not to interfere with a criminal investigation” into the shooting that left 13 dead and more than 30 wounded. Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan has been charged with murder in the Nov. 5 incident.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the Armed Services panel ranking member and Obama’s former presidential rival, told reporters Tuesday that the classified briefings have provided “some additional information,” but the picture won’t be complete until his committee holds the necessary hearings on the incident.
He called on the Obama administration to provide Congress with the pertinent information as soon as possible. McCain indicated that the administration’s calls not to hold hearings on the incident until more information is gathered could wear thin quickly.
“I think we should give them the benefit of the doubt once, but not twice,” McCain said. “Further delay is not called for.”
Meanwhile, the chairmen of the House Armed Services, Homeland Security and Intelligence committees have all agreed to requests from the administration to delay congressional hearings indefinitely.
The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is the only panel that is moving forward with a hearing on the shootings.
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who chairs the committee, has been a target of liberals over the last several years for supporting the Iraq war, speaking at the 2008 GOP convention and criticizing proposals to create a public option in healthcare reform.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the panel’s ranking member, said the committee “is determined to conduct an in-depth investigation.”
Collins said that the Tuesday briefings were helpful but “raised many troubling questions.” The committee’s hearing on Thursday will be open to the public.
The centrist Republican noted that the Obama administration has so far declined to produce Army and FBI witnesses requested by the panel. But she said it is too early to use the panel’s subpoena power to compel the testimony.
“Sen. Lieberman and I will be very careful not to in any way jeopardize or compromise the criminal investigation that is under way. But it is imperative that Congress take a look at what went wrong in this case,” Collins told reporters on Tuesday. “I am certain that we can work out procedures that will protect the integrity of the criminal investigation.”
For example, the panel would agree to interview fact witnesses in the case after the FBI and the Defense Criminal Investigative Service interviewed them, she said.
Collins stressed that the Homeland Security panel would bring critical experience to the investigation. “Our committee has a lot of experience in this,” she said. “We wrote the 2004 intelligence reform act, which implemented the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. We also for the past four years have been investigating homegrown terrorism.”
Lieberman has asserted that Hasan’s attack was likely an act of terrorism.
Tuesday’s briefing in the upper chamber was coordinated through the National Security Council and offered to the chairmen and ranking members of the Armed Services, Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Intelligence, Judiciary and Appropriations committees. It was also proided to other key House lawmakers, and to Senate leadership.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) is questioning the motive behind what he sees as the Justice Department’s reluctance to provide information about the Fort Hood massacre to congressional investigators.
Sessions, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said he talked last week to Attorney General Eric Holder about the shootings. Session said Holder told him that the Justice Department and the FBI could not provide certain information to Senate investigators because it could hinder the prosecution of Hasan.
On the House side, Republicans unleashed a litany of accusations at the Democrats’ acquiescence to the administration’s wishes to delay hearings. Republicans charged that Democrats succumbed to what they described as an Obama administration pattern of basing national security decisions on political calculations.
Top Intelligence Committee Republicans, along with the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security panel, on Tuesday afternoon hammered the administration’s desire to suppress — even temporarily — congressional oversight of potential intelligence gaps.
“This is a systemic problem,” House Intelligence ranking member Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) said at a Tuesday press conference. “We believe that this jeopardizes, in the future, our national security.”
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), however, said he was fully supportive of waiting for executive branch investigators to do their jobs.
“We need to allow different agencies to conduct their investigations,” Reyes said.
Reyes called the administration’s request “appropriate,” although he refused to identify exactly where it came from.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said the request came from the FBI, which led the Tuesday morning briefing of the top Democrats and Republicans on the three relevant committees, plus House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
“They’ve asked us to give them the opportunity to look at all that’s occurred,” Thompson said. “And they said they’d come back at a future date.”
But Hoekstra and House Homeland Security ranking member Pete King (R-N.Y.) said they came away from the same briefing with the impression that FBI officials were not pressing for such delays.
Hoekstra and Rep. Mike Rogers (Mich.), a senior Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, insinuated that Democrats felt compelled to stonewall congressional scrutiny because of recent decisions to reel in some of the intelligence community’s more controversial methods and practices of intelligence-gathering.
“I would argue that, over the last few months, that tools and methods that have been used in previous months and years by the intelligence community are no longer at their disposal,” Rogers said. “We need to ask some very tough questions: Which tools and which methods that have been restricted may have contributed to the outcome of those shootings at Fort Hood?”
Hoekstra and Rogers, though, refused to give examples of any newly prohibited methods that they believe could have prevented Hasan from carrying out the shooting.
Asked later about that charge — which Hoekstra has made in the past — Reyes replied testily. “I don’t know what the Republicans are talking about,” he said. “Oftentimes they talk about stuff that never happened.”
Susan Crabtree contributed to this article.