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Specter of a Backbone

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, June 8, 2006 11:24 AM

Infuriated by Vice President Cheney's stealth campaign to subvert his embryonic attempts at oversight into the administration's domestic spying program, Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter yesterday did something very rare inside Republican circles: He went public.

In a blistering, three-page letter, Specter shed light on a modus operandi that is normally obscured in secrecy: The way Cheney bends Congress to his will -- and ignores those who dare defy him.

Greg Miller writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee lashed out at Vice President Dick Cheney on Wednesday, accusing the vice president of secretly lobbying other GOP members of the committee to block hearings on the administration's domestic surveillance program.

"In an unusually sharp attack, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said Cheney had gone behind his back in an effort to persuade other committee members to derail his plans to require telecommunications companies to testify on whether they secretly gave U.S. spy agencies vast quantities of data on customer phone calls. . . .

"His decision to confront Cheney represents an unusually public rupture between a senior GOP lawmaker and the White House. It also provides a rare public glimpse of the tactics employed by a vice president who prefers to operate behind the scenes."

James Kuhnhenn writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "In a delicious bit of detail that underscores the intimacy of this high-powered relationship, Specter complained in his letter that Cheney did not even raise the subject during Tuesday's closed-door Senate Republican policy lunch, which Specter and the vice president both attended.

" 'I walked directly in front of you on at least two occasions en route from the buffet to my table,' Specter wrote."

Carl Hulse and Jim Rutenberg write in the New York Times: "One Republican with close ties to the administration, who was granted anonymity to discuss the thinking at the White House, said Mr. Specter had been increasingly nettlesome to the administration with his persistent criticism, especially of the surveillance programs.

"Noting that the White House was ultimately pleased with Mr. Specter's help in securing the confirmations of Mr. Bush's Supreme Court nominees, this Republican said, 'All of that good will he's built up has really been dissipated because he keeps smacking them around.'

"A senior White House official, granted anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said the president's chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten, had reached out to Mr. Specter on Friday to press the administration's case for how to handle the phone companies.

"The official described the conversation as 'cordial but not productive.'

" 'That's when we started reaching out to other members,' the official said. 'It was not out of disrespect.' . . .

"In an interview, Mr. Specter described his relationship with Mr. Cheney as generally friendly and cordial. But he was clearly put out by the vice president's handling of the issue and his failure to pull Mr. Specter aside as he made several trips to the buffet for tuna salad and hard-boiled egg, salad dressing and fruit."

Katherine Shrader writes for the Associated Press: "Cheney's spokeswoman Lea Anne McBride said the vice president had not yet studied Specter's letter. In an e-mail, she also reiterated the administration's position that no new legislation is needed to carry out the terrorist surveillance program.

" 'We will continue to work with Congress in good faith and listen to ideas of legislators,' including Specter and Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, McBride said. 'We will ultimately have to make a decision as an administration on whether any particular legislation would enhance our ability to protect Americans against terrorists.' "

The Letter

CNN Web-published the Specter letter .

"It is neither pleasant nor easy to raise these issues with the administration of my own party, but I do so because of their importance," Specter wrote.

"On March 16, 2006, I introduced legislation to authorize the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to rule on the constitutionality of the Administration's electronic surveillance program. . . . Notwithstanding my repeated efforts to get the Administration's position on this legislation, I have been unable to get any response, including a 'no.' . . .

"I was advised yesterday that you had called Republican members of the Judiciary Committee lobbying them to oppose any Judiciary Committee hearing, even a closed one, with the telephone companies. I was further advised that you told those Republican members that the telephone companies had been instructed not to provide any information to the Committee as they were prohibited from disclosing classified information.

"I was surprised, to say the least, that you sought to influence, really determine, the action of the Committee without calling me first, or at least calling me at some point. This was especially perplexing since we both attended the Republican Senators caucus lunch yesterday and I walked directly in front of you on at least two occasions enroute from the buffet to my table. . . .

"There is no doubt that the NSA program violates the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act which sets forth the exclusive procedure for domestic wiretaps which requires the approval of the FISA Court. It may be that the President has inherent authority under Article II to trump that statute but the President does not have a blank check and the determination on whether the President has such Article II power calls for a balancing test which requires knowing what the surveillance program constitutes."

And Specter noted that this is not exactly the only example of the Bush administration's expansion of executive power.

"We press this issue in the context of repeated stances by the Administration on expansion of Article II power, frequently at the expense of Congress's Article I authority. There are the Presidential signing statements where the President seeks to cherry-pick which parts of the statute he will follow. There has been the refusal of the Department of Justice to provide the necessary clearances to permit its Office of Professional Responsibility to determine the propriety of the legal advice given by the Department of Justice on the electronic surveillance program. There is the recent Executive Branch search and seizure of Congressman Jefferson's office. There are recent and repeated assertions by the Department of Justice that it has the authority to criminally prosecute newspapers and reporters under highly questionable criminal statutes."

On CNN

Wolf Blitzer interviewed Specter on CNN, and in person, the senator was unemotional.

"I'm not accusing anybody of anything. And I'm not saying the vice president acted in bad faith," he said.

"This is nothing personal between Arlen Specter or Vice President Cheney. This is a matter of civil liberties. It's a matter of separation of power. And it's a matter of important congressional oversight. And, so far, we're not getting there. And that's why I prepared a fairly strong letter. . . .

"I don't think the president has acted in bad faith here. I think he is functioning on something which he thinks needs to be done to protect the country. But he doesn't have a blank check. He's not the final word. We have a Constitution. The Constitution says that the Congress has oversight. And, on a constitutional issue, that's the Judiciary Committee."

Oh Happy Day

U.S. forces yesterday killed the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, giving the White House what may be the biggest Iraq-related public-relations lift since the capture of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

President Bush today strode out into the Rose Garden this morning to make a statement .

"Zarqawi's death is a severe blow to al Qaeda. It's a victory in the global war on terror, and it is an opportunity for Iraq's new government to turn the tide of this struggle."

Bush praised the Iraqi prime minister for finally completing his cabinet and announced a series of high-profile meetings planned for next week.

"On Monday I will meet with my national security team and other key members of my Cabinet at Camp David to discuss the way forward in Iraq. Our top diplomats and military commanders in Iraq will give me an assessment of recent changes in the political and economic and security situation on the ground. On Tuesday, Iraq's new Ambassador to the United States will join us, and we will have a teleconference discussion with the Prime Minister and members of his cabinet. Together we will discuss how to best deploy America's resources in Iraq and achieve our shared goal of an Iraq that can govern itself, defend itself and sustain itself. . . .

"We have tough days ahead of us in Iraq that will require the continued patience of the American people. Yet the developments of the last 24 hours give us renewed confidence in the final outcome of this struggle: the defeat of terrorism threats, and a more peaceful world for our children and grandchildren."

Turning the Tide

There is something very concrete about killing a vicious murderer and insurgent leader. But it's worth noting that this is not the first time Bush has cited an event in Iraq as representing a new chapter.

Bush today cited Zarqawi's death as "an opportunity for Iraq's new government to turn the tide of this struggle."

As I wrote in my May 24 column, Out of Touch on Iraq , Bush on May 22 hailed the formation of a new Iraqi government as a "turning point."

And as Peter Baker and Bradley Graham noted in The Washington Post: "Bush has declared turning points and milestones in the war before. He called it 'an important milestone' when a temporary governing council was formed in July 2003 and 'a turning point' when sovereignty was turned over to the interim government in June 2004. Elections in January 2005, he said, were both 'a turning point in the history of Iraq' and 'a milestone in the advance of freedom.'

"He called it a 'milestone' in October when Iraqi voters approved a constitution and 'a major milestone' two months later when they elected a parliament -- a moment he also termed 'a turning point in the history of Iraq, the history of the Middle East and the history of freedom.' The selection of a prime minister last month was 'an important milestone toward our victory in Iraq' and, a week later, 'a turning point for the Iraqi citizens.' "

Man or Myth?

In a case of interesting timing, Mary Anne Weaver , writing in the latest issue of Atlantic (subscription required), debunks the mythology of Zarqawi, who she insists "is not the terrorist mastermind that he is often claimed to be."

She also writes: "During my time in Jordan, I asked a number of officials what they considered to be the most curious aspect of the relationship between the U.S. and al-Zarqawi, other than the fact that the Bush administration had inflated him.

"One of them said, 'The six times you could have killed Zarqawi, and you didn't.'

"When [then-Secretary of State Colin] Powell addressed the United Nations, he discussed the Ansar al-Islam camp near Khurmal, in northern Kurdistan, which he claimed was producing ricin and where al-Zarqawi was then based. On at least three occasions, between mid-2002 and the invasion of Iraq the following March, the Pentagon presented plans to the White House to destroy the Khurmal camp, according to a report published by The Wall Street Journal in October 2004. The White House either declined or simply ignored the request."

Here are Zarqawi primers from washingtonpost.com and the Council on Foreign Relations .

Bush in Omaha

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "Continuing his campaign to build support for comprehensive immigration legislation, President Bush on Wednesday emphasized that illegal immigrants who want to stay here should learn English and demonstrate that they are committed to assimilating into American culture.

"After visiting a community center where immigrants learn English, Bush coupled a call for strict border enforcement with a plea that newcomers be treated compassionately."

Julie Mason writes in the Houston Chronicle: "Touting the need for new arrivals to this country to learn English and assimilate into the culture, President Bush on Wednesday called the current immigration debate a test of America's soul.

" 'The first thing people have got to remember is we are a nation of immigrants, that we've had this debate before in American history,' Bush told supporters at the South Omaha campus of the Metropolitan Community College. 'This isn't the first time the United States of America has had to take a look at our nature and our soul and our history.'"

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "On the second day of a campaign-style trip to sell his immigration bill to the public and to skeptical conservatives in Congress, Mr. Bush also directed his homeland security secretary, Michael Chertoff, to create a 'task force on new Americans' to expand local initiatives to help immigrants integrate into American society. . . .

"While the task force is largely symbolic -- there is no new money for it -- the president's fresh emphasis on assimilation is part of a strategy by the White House to unite Republicans in the House and Senate around what Mr. Bush calls 'comprehensive immigration reform.' "

Here is Bush's executive order creating the new task force. Here's the text of his remarks in Omaha.

Shmoozing

Bush toured a Catholic Charities social center, meeting with two groups of immigrants.

Pool reporter Stephen Dinan of the Washington Times wrote to his peers that Bush joked with one man who had two young children, warning him to watch out when they become teenagers. "You think my hair is gray because I'm president?" Bush asked. "No, my hair is gray because of teenage daughters."

Bush also said his favorite food is cheese enchiladas.

That said, there's a limit to Bush's appetite for Mexican food.

The Omaha World-Herald reports that the owner of El Alamo Restaurant in Omaha, who was asked to prepare breakfast burritos for the event (with bacon, ham and standard American breakfast sausage, instead of the standard chorizo), was later told that Bush "had his fill of Mexican food Tuesday."

Bush on Chavez

And as Abramowitz notes in The Post: "Bush took an unexpected shot at Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, with whom the administration has long been at odds. Told by one woman at the center, Lourdes Secola, that she was from Venezuela, Bush said he is worried about her country.

" 'I think it will be okay,' Bush told Secola. 'But it's going to take awhile. Sometimes leaders show up who do a great disservice to the traditions and people of a country.' "

Bubble Watch

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek: "Administration officials have touted Bush's recent speeches on immigration as a sign that he's exerting the muscle that many lawmakers in Congress had complained was lacking in recent months. Yet, just as he did in his failed push on Social Security last year, Bush has been delivering his sales pitch mainly before friendly audiences that are already on board with his plan, as opposed to those who really need convincing."

Gay Marriage Watch

Shailagh Murray writes in The Washington Post: "A constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, backed by President Bush and conservative groups, was soundly defeated in the Senate yesterday after proponents failed to persuade a bare majority of all senators to support the measure."

Another New Chapter?

Here is the official White House response to the defeat of the measure: "Today's Senate vote on the Marriage Protection Amendment marks the start of a new chapter in this important national debate," Bush said, somewhat inexplicably.

Bush (41) v. Rumsfeld

Sidney Blumenthal writes in Salon: "Former President George H.W. Bush waged a secret campaign over several months early this year to remove Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The elder Bush went so far as to recruit Rumsfeld's potential replacement, personally asking a retired four-star general if he would accept the position, a reliable source close to the general told me. But the former president's effort failed, apparently rebuffed by the current president. When seven retired generals who had been commanders in Iraq demanded Rumsfeld's resignation in April, the younger Bush leapt to his defense. 'I'm the decider and I decide what's best. And what's best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain,' he said. His endorsement of Rumsfeld was a rebuke not only to the generals but also to his father."

Froomkin Watch

No column tomorrow. I'm off this afternoon to the YearlyKos convention in Las Vegas, where I've been invited to speak on a panel tomorrow at 9:30 a.m. Pacific Time about the CIA leak investigation. My fellow panelists include Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, National Journal reporter Murray Waas, former CIA officer Larry C. Johnson, and bloggers Marcy Wheeler and Christy Hardin Smith. Here's some information on live coverage .

This Should Be Fun

The New York Daily News reports that it's Washington bureau chief, Thomas M. DeFrank, has won the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on the Presidency .

"Vice President Cheney, once President Ford's chief of staff, will present the award at a National Press Club luncheon June 19."

The ex-president's nonprofit foundation "singled out three articles from last fall: a story reporting that Bush had rebuked senior adviser Karl Rove in 2003 for his role in the Valerie Plame case [ Bush whacked Rove on CIA leak ]; a story describing the erosion of the Bush-Cheney relationship [ Dubya-Cheney ties frayed by scandal ], and a story describing Bush as 'frustrated, sometimes angry and even bitter,' and recounting how he was lashing out at junior aides [ Bushies feeling the boss' wrath ]."

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