Pentagon offers partial response to Fort Hood subpoenas
WASHINGTON — Pentagon officials on Tuesday agreed to release some documents subpoenaed by the Senate Homeland Security Committee but still refuse to send witnesses to testify about the soldier accused in last fall’s deadly shooting at Fort Hood.
Leslie Phillips, spokeswoman for the committee, in an e-mail called the decision “an affront to Congress’s Constitutional obligation to conduct independent oversight” and said that committee chairman Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., is weighing further legal action.
But lawmakers may be limited in what they can do to force the Pentagon to comply with the subpoena, according to legal experts.
At issue is information related to Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people at the Texas base in November.
Colleagues say the 39-year-old Muslim had made extremist statements about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan throughout his career, but commanders failed to react to the warning signs. Lieberman has said Congress has a responsibility to look into why Hasan was allowed to stay on duty.
But Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Department of Justice officials insist that such an investigation could jeopardize criminal prosecution of Hasan, and have blocked those efforts.
On Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said the department will allow the committee to look at Hasan’s personnel file and some additional details of his past.
But the department will not allow the committee to talk to witnesses involved with Hasan or view reports from witness interviews. Morrell said that could “potentially jeopardize the prosecution of Major Hasan.”
Phillips said the committee has agreed to carefully handle any such interviews, even outlining protocols for how those witnesses would be questioned. The Pentagon has refused those overtures, which prompted the subpoenas earlier this month.
Cornell law professor Josh Chafetz said enforcement of the subpoena requires the full chamber to vote on a contempt citation. That’s unlikely, because other committees in the Senate have been willing to wait on information related to the Fort Hood shooting until after the criminal case.
Even then, following through on the contempt charges is complicated. Chafetz said that responsibility falls to the Department of Justice, but the White House would likely block any such request. That would leave lawmakers to take the case to federal court, and wade through numerous appeals before seeing results.
In February 2008, the House voted to hold two senior White House officials — chief of staff Joshua Bolten and former counsel Harriet Miers — in contempt for defying congressional subpoenas about the questionable firing of seven U.S. attorneys.
Despite the action, neither spent any time in prison, and eventually the committee worked out agreements with both to testify in a limited manner.Since World War I, no executive branch official has spent time in prison for defying a congressional subpoena.