By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, November 9, 2005
It's in vogue on Capitol Hill these days to belong to a club. Senators negotiating a compromise over judicial nominees call themselves the "Gang of 14." When congressional leaders go to the White House, they are "the Big Five."
Then there are the half-dozen senators negotiating this week over a new intelligence committee probe: "The Sissy Six."
This unfortunate sobriquet, divulged by a committee staffer to reporters yesterday, comes from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence acronym, SSCI. As it happens, the Sissy Six are under pressure to demonstrate that they don't deserve the name.
In recent days, three contentious political issues have presented themselves to Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and his committee members -- and each one will require a muscular response if the committee is to preserve its reputation.
There's the public quarrel over an agenda for the committee's probe into officials' alleged distortions of intelligence before the Iraq war; facing a Monday deadline, the six sat for more than two hours yesterday but came to no agreement.
Next, there's the flap over the administration's opposition to legislation banning torture; Roberts and one of his committee lieutenants, Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.), found themselves on the short end of a 90 to 9 Senate vote to outlaw mistreatment of terrorism prisoners.
Now comes a new controversy: demands by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) that the intelligence committees probe a Washington Post story on secret CIA prisons for terrorists. Frist did not inform Roberts before going public with a letter addressed to Roberts and his House counterpart.
"I heard about it on CNN," the chairman told reporters after lunch. Noticing that his questioners were quoting from the letter, Roberts said: "I've not received that. . . . If you have the letter, I'd like to see it."
The Democratic members of the Sissy Six -- Jay D. Rockefeller IV (W.Va), Carl M. Levin (Mich.) and Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) -- filed through the frosted-glass doors of the intelligence committee office just after 10 a.m. Two Republican members -- Bond and Trent Lott (Miss.) -- followed, but Roberts kept them waiting until 10:15.
"What's all this?" Roberts asked of the cameras and reporters assembled outside the secret meeting. He predicted that news of the meeting would not land on Page One. He was correct.
The six did not agree on the key disputes: how long a probe would take, which administration officials would be interviewed, and how to handle the activities of former undersecretary of defense Douglas J. Feith's office. They punted the questions to a meeting of the full committee scheduled for this morning. And, by all accounts, it was tense.
Bond ducked out mid-meeting, reporting, sardonically, that they were "having a lot of fun." The national intelligence director, John D. Negroponte, paid the senators an unannounced visit -- then departed within a minute, as aides insisted the drop-by was coincidental. Lott emerged twice, joking both times that everything would be wrapped up shortly.
"You said that last time," NBC's Ken Strickland noted on the second occasion.
Lott laughed, then confessed: "They're in there trying to figure out what to say to y'all."
They didn't come up with much. Feinstein and Levin left wearing grim expressions and refusing to comment. Roberts, plainly irritated, announced even before reaching the microphones that "there wasn't any" big news.
Roberts angrily opposed the Democrats' theatrics last week when the minority party forced a closed session of the Senate to restore attention to the intelligence probe. Still seething, he reported that the six "had a very frank and candid discussion" -- diplomatic code for tense and fruitless -- and added that the committee would act "in a bipartisan manner to the degree we can achieve that."
Rockefeller reached out for a handshake. Roberts seemed baffled by the gesture and, after a painful pause, took the ranking Democrat's hand. Before Rockefeller could make his statement, Roberts turned and walked away. "There's no question that there are several areas where there are substantial disagreements," Rockefeller allowed.
For Roberts, the day did not improve during the afternoon. While the chairman lunched with fellow GOP senators, White House press secretary Scott McClellan, besieged at his briefing by questions about the torture policy, lost his cool. He told one reporter she was "showboating for the cameras" and another that she didn't "want the American people to hear what the facts are."
Emerging from lunch in the Capitol, Roberts, quickly surrounded by reporters asking similar questions, explained that although the United States shouldn't torture, prisoners should think otherwise. "It's the fear of the unknown that really allows us to get the answers that we need," he said.
Defending the military's treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, he added: "There are more senators and congressmen with ethics cases pending than there are problems with interrogation right now in Gitmo."
That argument might not earn him favor with his colleagues. But these are not the words of a sissy.