Panel probes Fort Hood attack

Posted Nov. 19, 2009, at 10:14 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The Senate hearing Thursday on the Fort Hood shooting began with questions about how federal agencies can cooperate to identify and prevent extremist behavior and unraveled to speculation on whether the First Amendment should apply fully to members of the military.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee began its probe by discussing whether Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the alleged shooter, should have been questioned or monitored and whether federal procedures should change to catch potential threats before they escalate.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Congress must work to understand the shortcomings that led to the shooting.

“To prevent future homegrown terrorist attacks, we must better understand why our law enforcement and intelligence agencies and our military personnel system may have failed in this case,” Collins, the top Republican on the committee, said. “These patriotic soldiers and civilians of all faiths that were injured and killed — not on a foreign battleground, but rather on what should have been safe and secure American territory —deserve a thorough investigation.”

Though committee chairman Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, said Wednesday in a press conference that the committee was “not interested in political theater” with the hearings, Thursday’s hearing provided plenty of drama, and may not yield results anytime soon.

Lieberman said that the committee would have another public hearing about so-called homegrown terror plots and the Fort Hood attack “when and if we think it’s appropriate and constructive to do so,” and until then would continue investigations behind closed doors.

The hearing, which focused on information available on the public record about Hasan, his research and military career, featured testimony from retired Army Gen. John Keane as well as Fran Townsend, a former assistant to President George W. Bush for homeland security and counterterrorism.

Representatives from RAND, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the intelligence division of the New York Police Department also testified.

No current federal employees were witnesses, one indicator that the congressional investigation is being tolerated — not supported or encouraged — by President Barack Obama, who reportedly asked Lieberman to wait for the criminal investigation of the incident to be over before delving into it himself.

Witnesses talked about “lone wolf” acts of terrorism, where it is unclear whether the attacker is acting alone or as part of an organization, as well as how political correctness could have saved Hasan, a practicing Muslim, from inquiry about his behavior or beliefs.

“Were numerous warning signs ignored because the Army faces a shortage of psychiatrists and was concerned, as the Army chief of staff has subsequently put it, about a ‘backlash against Muslim soldiers’?” Collins said in her opening statement. “These are all questions we will seek to answer.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said that the military should monitor soldiers more closely.

“Perhaps we should err on the side of caution rather than the side of [political] correctness,” he said.

Keane, a former Army vice chief of staff, said that it should be the responsibility of other soldiers to alert their superiors of extremist views in their units. Right now, he said, it is not a requirement, and many soldiers will pull away from someone with radical views, allowing extremists to exist in the ranks and polarize units.

“We will find that our policies will need revision again to reflect the specific behavior of jihad extremists,” Keane said. “It should not be an act of moral courage for a soldier to identify another soldier who has exhibited extremist behavior. It should be an obligation.”

When the investigation is concluded, Lieberman said, the committee will make recommendations for the federal government.

“I’m very much for a diverse Army, and I think that the diversity in our Army is its strength,” Collins said after the hearing. “What I also believe is that if a member of the military exhibits extremist behavior it has to be confronted for the safety of all those that individual is serving with.”

Hours after the hearing ended Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that former Army Secretary Togo West and former Chief of Naval Operations Vernon Clark would lead the Pentagon review of the shootings.

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