FBI Raid Hits a Constitutional Nerve

"Documents having nothing whatsoever to do with any crime" were "seized by the executive branch without constitutional authority," House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner said at the first hearing on the raid. (By Chip Somodevilla -- Getty Images)
By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, May 31, 2006

When asked to hold hearings on the rendition and torture of terrorism suspects, House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) respectfully declined.

Invited repeatedly to probe the Bush administration's leaking of a CIA operative's identity, the chairman sent his regrets.

Urged to have hearings dedicated to the administration's warrantless eavesdropping, Sensenbrenner demurred once more.

But when FBI agents searched a congressional office 11 days ago, Sensenbrenner went up to the attic and found his gavel.

Yesterday, he held the first of at least four hearings into the raid -- the debut was dispassionately titled "Reckless Justice" -- and announced that he will haul the attorney general and FBI director before his committee. He also vowed that he will "promptly" write legislation to prevent a recurrence.

Even before the expert witnesses were sworn in yesterday, Sensenbrenner said his mind was made up. "Documents having nothing whatsoever to do with any crime," he lectured absent administration officials, were "seized by the executive branch without constitutional authority."

The four witnesses performed in the perfect harmony of an amen chorus.

"A wholesale constitutional violation," said former House lawyer Charles Tiefer.

"Unconstitutional," judged constitutional lawyer Bruce Fein.

"Abandonment of fundamental law," said former congressman Bob Walker (R-Pa.). "A recipe for constitutional crisis."

"A profound and almost gratuitous insult," contributed George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley. "Raw arrogance."

The lawmakers were not entirely at ease in their new role as sentinels of the Constitution; only six of the panel's 40 members could pull themselves away from the demands of the Memorial Day recess to attend the hearing. "The American people do not begin to understand why there is a concern," allowed Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).

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