Lieberman may subpoena officials over shooting spree at Fort Hood

Sen. Joe Lieberman said Wednesday he would hold a hearing on the Fort Hood shootings and may use his subpoena power to force government officials to testify, setting up a potential conflict with the Obama administration.

The chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is moving ahead with a public hearing on Thursday despite pressure from the White House to delay congressional inquiries.

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Lieberman (I-Conn.) said he feels compelled to probe the Nov. 5 shootings that killed 13 people at the Army base in Texas. Lieberman and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the committee’s ranking Republican, said they want answers as to why the Army failed to identify signs that might have prevented the crimes. The panel has repeatedly held similar hearings in the past without jeopardizing criminal investigations, the two lawmakers said.

An Army major, Nidal Malik Hasan, has been charged with 13 counts of murder in the Nov. 5 incident. President Barack Obama has asked for a report by Nov. 30 after it was revealed that a federal joint task force had scrutinized Hasan in December 2008.

Lieberman has called the shootings “a terrorist attack” — a statement he repeated Wednesday — and left no doubt he intended to use the hearings to focus on a perceived increase in Islamic extremism.

“We will conduct this investigation to determine what we can do to better protect our military service personnel and all of our citizens,” Lieberman said. “We will focus on what the federal government knew and what it did concerning Maj. Hasan and whether action should have been taken to prevent him from carrying out his attack, as well as how the attack affects our understanding of and defenses against the threat posed by violent Islamist extremism and homegrown terrorism in this country, on military bases and beyond.”

Lieberman did not mention issuing subpoenas to compel government witnesses, but told The Hill that he won’t rule it out.

“I hope we don’t get to that,” he said. “It’s a power that it’s important that we have, but you never want to have to use it. I’m just assuming we’re going to work out a cooperative understanding with the administration.

“Basically what we’re looking for is access to people involved in this, to interview them as part of our need to understand what happened. … This is a classic legislative-executive moment, and that’s why we’ve got to be very persistent here. And we will be.”

Lieberman’s disagreement with the Obama administration creates an awkward situation for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who allowed Lieberman to keep his chairmanship earlier this year. Democrats had been angry with Lieberman for bucking the party and supporting Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for president last year. This month the Connecticut Independent rankled many members of his former party when he announced he would not support ending debate on the Democratic healthcare bill if it included a public insurance option, which it does.

Reid spokesman Jim Manley on Wednesday said Reid had no regrets about letting Lieberman keep his gavel.

Collins said she wanted the hearing to “connect the dots.”

“Were there inexcusable gaps and communications failures and failures to act on compelling evidence that might have allowed us to prevent the attack at Fort Hood?” she said. “The shootings at Fort Hood appear to demonstrate that communication failures and poor judgment calls can defeat systems intended to ensure that vital information is shared to protect our country and our citizens.”

Notably, Thursday’s witnesses do not include any federal government employees, although Lieberman described them as “experts.” They are: Gen. John M. Keane, retired former Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army; Frances Fragos Townsend, former White House homeland security adviser and now a partner at Baker Botts; Mitchell D. Silber, director of analysis at the Intelligence Division of the New York City Police Department; Juan C. Zarate, senior adviser at the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies; and Brian M. Jenkins, senior adviser at the RAND Corp.

Army and FBI officials briefed lawmakers on Tuesday on the shootings, hoping to avoid a widening gap between Congress and the White House.

Obama warned Congress on Saturday not to turn the shooting into “political theater.” The Senate Armed Services Committee subsequently postponed a scheduled closed-door briefing on Monday with Secretary of the Army John McHugh and Army Chief of Staff George Casey. But Lieberman and Collins issued a rare Saturday release after Obama remarks, vowing that its investigation would not become “political theater.”

Lieberman said he is in ongoing talks with administration officials over a path forward, and insisted several times Wednesday that his committee’s inquiry would look at the system that allowed the crime to occur, and not the actual crime. The senator said he did not see a need to interview witnesses of the shootings, for example.

Also Wednesday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) sent a letter to the White House to ask that his committee receive a copy of the federal report once it is submitted to Obama on Nov. 30. Leahy’s committee oversees the FBI, which is assisting the Army in the inquiry.

“Consistent with my responsibilities as the chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, and my constitutional obligation to conduct rigorous congressional oversight, I request that the results of the internal investigations by the FBI and the Army be transmitted to the Committee on the Judiciary,” Leahy wrote. “I appreciate that the Department of the Army and the FBI are engaged in an ongoing investigation of this case, and I do not wish to interfere with that process.”

This story was updated at 9 p.m.