Thursday, July 13, 2006

A watchdog goes to obedience school

The Republican Congress has signaled lately that it might be wearying of its longstanding role as obedient doormat for the Bush administration. This week alone, three different committees are looking at Bush's Guantanamo policy, perhaps with the aim of bringing it into compliance with U.S. and international law. Several weeks ago, a Senate committee examined Bush's penchant for "signing statements," which he has frequently used to undercut the bills he has been signing into law. Also several weeks ago, the Senate took steps to boost their oversight of the money being spent in Iraq.

Is the GOP on Capitol Hill indeed rousing itself from a supine position, perhaps in a bid to act tough just in time for the '06 elections? I plan to probe that issue at length in a weekend newspaper column, but today, after checking out this report, I need to sound a harsh note of skepticism. Notwithstanding the fact that Congress has a constitutional responsibility to oversee the executive branch, and ask the tough questions, Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas still prefers to carry the administration's water.

This week, Roberts, as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has again postponed the deadline for the panel's long-awaited official examination of whether the Bush administration misused intelligence in the runup to the war in Iraq. The report by Congressional Quarterly indicates that, with the new deadlines, there is "virtually no chance" that the report will be finished, much less released, before the November congressional elections.

How convenient. But to get the full flavor of doormat behavior, let us look at the factual record of this stalled probe:

1. Roberts announced way back in February 2004 that he would permit a study of whether the Bush administration misused the prewar intelligence. This was to be "Phase II" of the committee's work. But first came "Phase I," a more limited report, which looked only at whether the intelligence agencies had screwed up. That was promptly completed on July 9, 2004.
Roberts then went on Meet the Press, and absolved Bush before the Phase II probe was even begun. He told Tim Russert that it was wrong to put the blame on Bush for his inaccurate prewar claims. Roberts contended: "What he said is what he got, and what got was wrong."

2. Reacting to suggestions that the intelligence agencies were being scapegoated, Roberts insisted on July 9 that Phase II would indeed be conducted, to assess whether Bush had twisted some of the intell. That day, Roberts told UPI: "It is a priority. I made my commitment and it will get done." Yet, two days later, he told Russert that even though Phase II was "ongoing," he had a calendar problem: "I don't know if we can get it done before the election. It is more important to get it right." The election that November was Bush versus Kerry. The report didn't get done.

3. In March 2005, Roberts told the press that Phase II was "basically on the back burner." Why? Because, in his words, it "got to be a problem, in regard to a subjective point of view."
And because, referring to the '04 elections, "we were in an even-numbered year, and you know what that means."

4. But the odd-numbered year, it turned out, wasn't going to be any better. That March, he also said that "to go through that (Phase II) exercise, it seems to me, in a post-election environment, we didn't see how we could do that and achieve any possible progress."

5. On Nov. 1, 2005, speaking on the Senate floor, he said: "What is Phase II? Why has it been delayed, if in fact it has been delayed?...It isn't like it's been delayed. As a matter of fact, it's ongoing."

6. On Feb. 12 of this year, Roberts was back on Meet the Press and told Russert: "Phase IIwill be completed, and rest assure there's nobody in Washington that wants that completed more than I do." He then volunteered that the Bush adminstration didn't personally pressure intelligence agents to hype prewar evidence -- an irrelevent point, because Phase II is supposed to be about whether the administration twisted and manipulated the evidence it received.

7. On April 25 of this year, The Hill, a reliable newspaper that covers Congress, reported that Roberts had decided to reorganize the Phase II probe, in a way that would "push off its most politically controversial elements to a later time...Left unfinished would be a report on whether public statements and testimony about Iraq by senior U.S. government officials were substantiated by available intelligence information."

Barring an unlikely Democratic takeover of the Senate in November, we can assume that Roberts' conception of congressional oversight is ongoing.


On another matter: As I noted here yesterday, one of President Bush's lawyers testified on Capitol Hill this week that his boss had a few traits in common with Louis XIV of France and all those English royals who once believed in the divine right of kings. The quote under oath, from deputy attorney general Steven Bradbury, was: "The president is always right."

Now Bradbury says that he was only kidding. Appearing again yesterday on Capitol Hill, Bradbury said, "I guess that just shows I shouldn’t try to be humorous when I’m testifying."

I saw that original Bradbury quote on C-Span. He looked pretty grim for a side-splitting comic. Then again, it worked for Buster Keaton.