Senate Intelligence Panel Frayed by Partisan Infighting
Sunday, March 12, 2006
The Senate intelligence committee, once a symbol of bipartisan oversight, is now so torn by partisan warfare that it can barely function in a time of sharp national debate over intelligence matters, according to several analysts, officials and past and current members.
Inter-party animosity has simmered since the 1990s, but it heated up when Republicans took steps to limit probes into President Bush's handling of the Iraq war and domestic spying. It reached a full boil Tuesday, when the committee voted along party lines to reject a proposed investigation of the administration's warrantless surveillance of Americans' international communications. It voted instead to create a White House-approved subcommittee to oversee the operation, infuriating Democrats and some civil libertarians.
Their anger has focused mainly on the committee's chairman, Republican Pat Roberts of Kansas. A staunch defender of Bush administration policies, he recently said some of the panel's Democrats "believe the gravest threat we face is not Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, but rather the president of the United States."
When Roberts adjourned a committee meeting last month rather than allow a vote on the proposed wiretap inquiry, Vice Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) declared the panel "basically under the control of the White House, through its chairman."
The infighting and impasses have dismayed many Republicans and Democrats who say an independent and smooth-running committee is vital, especially now that news of the government's aggressive eavesdropping is raising new questions about how to balance civil liberties and a hard-hitting war on terrorism.
The committee's overt partisanship "is new, at least to my mind, and it's distressful, because this is one area where partisanship does not belong," said Thomas H. Kean, the former Republican governor of New Jersey who chaired the widely praised commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. With the news media and outside commissions lacking subpoena powers, Kean said, "the committee is absolutely essential, and it can't allow partisanship to get in the way."
Former senator Bob Graham (D-Fla.), a committee member for 10 years and a onetime chairman, said the partisan quarreling "is a very serious matter, and I hope that the members will find out a way to work through these current institutional differences and partisan divides."
The committee's leaders acknowledge deep problems in pursuing their mission but no obvious solutions. For years, "protecting the nation and its citizens from enemy attack was something on which most politicians could agree," Roberts wrote in a recent column for the Hill newspaper. "Sadly, it seems only four and a half years after Sept. 11, that this is no longer the case."
Rockefeller declined to be interviewed for this story but said in a statement that "this condition of partisanship cannot stand. . . . People must learn to deal with each other out of concern for national security and our responsibilities on the committee. We cannot continue like this."
Some in the intelligence community find the warring especially disappointing because the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence was fashioned 30 years ago to be less partisan than the typical congressional panel. Reacting to domestic spying abuses uncovered by the so-called Church Commission, lawmakers designed the committee to have an 8-to-7 majority-minority makeup, no matter how many senators each party has. Most of its staffers have no clear connection to either party. The committee's top minority member serves as the vice chairman -- and takes the gavel in the chairman's absence -- in contrast with the typical committee's "ranking minority member" who has little real authority.
"It was almost a brotherhood," said Joel Johnson, an aide to former Democratic senator Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio when he served on the committee in the early 1990s. The credo, he said, was: "You are entrusted with the secrets; you work together; you leave your rhetoric and partisanship outside the bulletproof door."
Bit by bit, however, the panel's brotherly spirit dissipated. People who have followed it cite several key turning points.