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Washington Memo

In 2nd Term, No Doubt About It

Bush and His Cabinet Nominees Concede and Explain Little

By Dana Milbank and Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 20, 2005; Page A04

President Bush and his Cabinet nominees have been sending a firm message as they kick off a second term: no mistakes, no regret, no comment.

In testimony Tuesday and yesterday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Condoleezza Rice, Bush's choice to be secretary of state, angrily rebuffed invitations to admit a foreign policy mistake during the first term.

"Senator," Rice told Sen. Barbara Boxer when the California Democrat said Rice "can't admit to an error," "we can have this discussion in any way that you would like, but I really hope that you will refrain from impugning my integrity. Thank you very much."

Two weeks earlier, before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Alberto R. Gonzales, Bush's pick to be attorney general, professed no recollection of his role in the writing of a controversial memo that narrowly defined what constitutes torture. This week, he refused requests to research the origin of the memo.

"I have no such notes and I have no present knowledge of any such notes, memoranda, e-mails or other documents and I have not conducted a search," Gonzales wrote in response to a request that he document his role. Even if he were to locate such documents, Gonzales added, they "would involve predecisional deliberations that I am not at liberty to disclose."

Even by the standards of often tight-lipped White Houses, the Bush team's recent disinclination to explain itself has some Democrats and outside analysts saying Congress cannot conduct proper oversight and provide the public with sufficient knowledge of its government. But with White House officials such as Rice and Gonzales assuming top places in the Cabinet, the administration will, if anything, retain even more control over information.

In an interview last week with The Washington Post, Bush argued that the time to hold his administration to account for any mistakes or misjudgments in Iraq was Election Day. "Well, we had an accountability moment, and that's called the 2004 election," he said. "And the American people listened to different assessments made about what was taking place in Iraq, and they looked at the two candidates, and chose me, for which I'm grateful."

Democrats, naturally, are fuming. "Those are very arrogant answers," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said of Gonzales at yesterday's meeting of the Judiciary Committee. As GOP senators stared impassively or scanned newspapers, Kennedy asked committee Republicans if they felt they were conducting sufficient oversight of "very important issues and questions on torture."

"Our committee should not acquiesce in such gross evasion and non-responsiveness," Kennedy said.

In written answers to Kennedy, Gonzales used the words "I am not at liberty to disclose" at least 10 times; "I do not recall" or "I have no recollection" six times; I did not "conduct a search" seven times; "I am not at liberty [to discuss certain matters]" 10 times; and "I have no present knowledge" seven times.

Also yesterday, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, complained to Rice about her tight limiting of answers.

"The questions we asked, I thought, gave you an opportunity to acknowledge some of the mistakes and misjudgments of the past four years," he told Rice. "But instead of seizing the opportunity, it seems to me, Dr. Rice, you danced around it. You sort of stuck to the party line, which seems pretty consistent: You're always right. You all never made any mistakes."

But Democrats, in the minority in both chambers of Congress, have little ability to alter policy and virtually no hope of blocking Bush's Cabinet appointments; only two Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee voted against Rice's nomination. And, so far, Republican lawmakers have not objected to Congress receiving a stiff-arm from the administration during the advise-and-consent process.

After Kennedy's complaint yesterday, Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) acknowledged that the specificity of Gonzales's answers "may not be satisfactory to you" and added: "I think it's a fair inquiry." But he said that Gonzales replied to many questions in writing and during a Jan. 6 hearing, in which committee members asked four rounds of queries. Democrats showed their pique by invoking a Senate rule to delay by one week a committee vote on Gonzales's nomination. Rice yesterday gave a nod to Democrats' complaints, acknowledging that "bad decisions" were made but declining to cite any. "We've made a lot of decisions in this period of time," she said. "Some of them have been good. Some of them have not been good. Some of them have been bad decisions, I'm sure. I know enough about history to stand back and to recognize that you judge decisions not at the moment but in how it all adds up."

When it came to particulars, Rice often demurred. Asked about briefings on part of Iraq's weapons program, she said, "I'm sorry, I just don't remember." Pressed about the abuse of prisoners in Iraq, she said, "I'm not going to speak to any specific interrogation techniques." When Biden asked about a possible agreement on Iran's nuclear program, she replied: "The answer, Senator, is I'm not going to get into hypotheticals till I know what I'm looking at. That's the answer."

The Bush White House, which has long complained about legislative encroachment on executive authority, dismissed the Democrats' complaints. "The president was very upfront with the American people about what we're facing in Iraq and what we're working to achieve in Iraq," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.

But a number of constitutional experts -- some conservatives among them -- say the confirmation hearings underscore a lack of congressional oversight over the administration that could have a harmful effect on U.S. policies.

"It's a little bit appalling," Bruce Fein, a Reagan administration Justice Department official, said of the Bush administration's dealings with Congress. "A conservative should want greater congressional scrutiny -- it limits government, and it checks folly."

Staff writer Dan Eggen contributed to this report.

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