Lieberman warns he'll issue subpoenas over Fort Hood shootings

Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) accused the Obama administration of stalling a congressional investigation into the Fort Hood shootings and threatened to start issuing subpoenas.

His vow opens a new rift with the White House for the Independent Lieberman, as well as the possibility of President Barack Obama’s first legal showdown with Congress.

ADVERTISEMENT
At a press conference Thursday, Lieberman said he would give the administration until Monday to release information about the shootings and, if it didn’t, would start subpoenaing.

Lieberman and ranking Homeland Security panel member Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said they would issue the subpoenas to the Defense Department and Justice Department under their own authority and would seek full committee approval to take the administration to court if the information isn’t released.

A stern Lieberman said he and Collins have been stalled for five months in their attempts to seek answers in the Nov. 5, 2009, tragedy at the Texas military base, in which 13 people were shot dead. An Army psychiatrist, Maj. Nidal Hasan, is accused of the murders, which Lieberman and others have described as an 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 White House on Thursday referred requests for comment to the Defense Department.

For now, it is unclear how the administration plans to react to Lieberman’s subpoena threat.

“We certainly recognize Congress’s important responsibility with respect to oversight and their interest in this tragic event,” said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman. “But it is also important as we work with the Congress, and we will continue to work with the Congress, to ensure that we maintain the integrity of our internal reviews, as well as the criminal investigation and the prosecution of Hasan.”

Lieberman said he has had countless conversations with administration officials to seek access to information and witnesses, in order to scrutinize whether the shootings could have been prevented and how Hasan should be tried. He said he has been repeatedly “frustrated” in that effort, and feels obligated to “fulfill my responsibility” as the committee’s chairman.

“I regret to say our efforts to obtain this information necessary to conduct a thorough investigation of this homeland terrorist act have been met with much foot-dragging, very limited assistance and changing reasons,” Lieberman said. “In short, the response of the executive branch to this thoroughly legitimate congressional request for information has been inadequate and unreasonable.

Collins was just as stern, noting that Obama initially said he welcomed a congressional investigation into the shootings, and saying the committee “has taken step after step, made offer after offer and bent over backwards” to accommodate the administration’s concerns.

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. But Lieberman and Collins ridiculed that assertion on Thursday, saying their committee has previously held hearings that did not interfere with prosecutions and that they had pledged to work with the administration to keep certain materials classified.

ADVERTISEMENT
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 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 he should stay.

Asked 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.

Democrats showed no immediate enthusiasm for punishing Lieberman over the subpoena threat. Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), for one, gave an emphatic no when asked if the caucus regretted leaving Lieberman as a chairman with subpoena power.

“Every chairman has that power, and hopefully they can still work it out,” Durbin said of Lieberman and the White House.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) went even further in defending Lieberman, noting that the senator is usually a reliable vote for the Democratic agenda.

“Think of all the issues where his vote was critical, even to take up legislation and reach 60 votes. To table votes. To move votes,” Carper said. “I mean, we would be crazy to try to ostracize him.

Sam Youngman and Roxana Tiron contributed to this story.

An earlier version of this story was posted at 1:26 p.m.