Congress has a role in investigating Fort Hood attack

Saturday, November 21, 2009

LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICIALS are almost always right to try to shield a criminal investigation from outside interference. Public pretrial statements by witnesses, for example, could be used by others to shape their testimony; evidence could be corrupted if not handled properly. And those directly involved could escape accountability if they are given immunity to testify before Congress.

So it comes as no surprise that the Justice Department and the Defense Department are asking lawmakers on Capitol Hill to back off from holding hearings on the Nov. 5 rampage at Fort Hood that left 13 people dead and 38 wounded. Democratic leaders have by and large agreed, leading some across the aisle to accuse the party of trying to cover up alleged administration mistakes. Connecticut independent Joseph I. Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, on Thursday held the only oversight hearing thus far.

But staying clear of the witnesses and evidence with a direct link to the scene of the crime does not mean legislators must sit idly by until the criminal case is concluded. Congress has an important role to play in understanding why military and civilian bureaucracies failed to detect and deter the danger presented by alleged gunman Maj. Nidal M. Hasan.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced on Thursday the formation of military task forces to examine the Pentagon's procedures for identifying service members who may pose a threat. That seems like a useful step, but it does not eliminate the need for a congressional probe. Unlike the Pentagon, Congress has the authority to call on officials from across the executive branch and demand a broad range of documents. It is better positioned to determine whether failures to share information across agencies and departments led law enforcement, military and intelligence officials to miss or downplay warning signs that Mr. Hasan apparently exhibited. A congressional probe would also possess added legitimacy because it would be independent of the executive branch.

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