Post Politics: Congressional Investigations, Pelosi and Harman, More

Paul Kane
Washington Post National Political Reporter
Thursday, April 23, 2009; 11:00 AM

Discuss the latest news about the White House and Congress with Washington Post congressional reporter Paul Kane.

Kane was online April 23 at 11 a.m. ET to take your questions about the possibility of a congressional investigation into the interrogation tactics of the Bush administration, as well as his latest article: Pelosi Says She Had Been Briefed on Harman Wiretap.


Paul Kane: Good morning folks, it's a nice spring morning here on Capitol Hill. The place is still abuzz with the two biggest national security morality plays of the last decade: torturing detainees in the war on terror, and the practice of eavesdropping in domestic surveillance of potential terrorist activity. The release of those interrogation memos has caused a firestorm, as has the revelations about the gov't catching Rep. Jane Harman on a surveillance tape discussing the ongoing investigation of espionage-like activity by AIPAC lobbyists.

Note: This was not in the gameplan of how Obama and congressional Democrats planned to kickstart this next phase of legislative activity, after the two-week April break for observance of the Easter and Passover holidays.

On a personal note, I'm a little under the weather right now. The gods of Vegas -- where I was over the weekend -- seem to be trying to strike down their vengance upon me for thinking that sleep is for losers. So I might not be as snappy as in recent weeks.

Let's get to the questions. --pk


Alexandria, Va.: Paul, I am curious why Dems are not pushing harder to seat Al Franken in the Senate. There does not seem to be a concerted effort for instance to pressure Gov. Pawlenty to sign a certification. Nor does there seem to be any effort to pressure Norm Coleman to fold. I've read articles that the Dems want to follow the arguments that they made with Senator Burris' seating in the Senate, but isn't there more they can still do? Or is the thinking that they can afford to wait a while longer and delay some of the hard-to-pass bills (where his vote might be needed)? What are you hearing from the Senate - patience or frustration? Thanks

Paul Kane: I slightly disagree, Alexandria. In the last 2-3 weeks the DNC and DSCC have begun to much more aggressively push campaigns and themes, including some level of advertising in Minnesota, calling on Coleman to drop out.

Reid and the Dem leadership keep painting themselves into corners over the seating issue. First, with regard to Burris, they demanded he have all the signatures, both the secretary of state and the governor, in order to be seated. Now, well, Franken can't quite get Pawlenty's signature, so Franken is still stuck in what I call Casablanca - he can't quite get his "letters of transit" from Rick (in this case Pawlenty) so he can't leave and get sworn in to the Senate.

A few months ago, Schumer complicated things when he said, flatly, that they'd wait till the state supreme court was done with hearing the appeal, under the belief that would be concluded by the end of March.

Well, the initial trial lasted weeks and weeks longer than they expected, and the supreme court is days or weeks away from taking this thing up.

So, both the Burris-letters of transit standard, and the Schumer declaration of letting the state supremes hear the case, have come back to bite the Dems.

Prediction: Franken will be seated in the U.S. Senate on June 2.


Philadelphia: What is understanding of what the recently announced House Select Intelligence Committee investigation will cover? Will it only be looking into the NSA wiretapping, or will it cover the entire story including the suspected Israeli agent?

Paul Kane: The intell panel would only have jurisdiction over what it has jurisdiction over -- meaning, intelligence issues. They can't delve into the Justice Department's case against the AIPAC lobbyists, especially since it's an ongoing matter. They might be able to review what NSA was looking for in the 1st place.


Boston: With all the hype about the first 100 days, why is this such an important (or perceived) milestone?

Paul Kane: Pure 100% honesty: We, the national media, look round numbers.

Sort of like how the bible was big into 40s -- 40 years out of the Promised Land, 40 days in the dessert.

The only rationale for the 100 days is because FDR made a big deal about it, and ever since we've been using it as a measuring stick. It's quite artificial, but it's a nice way to try to get advertisers to pay big sums (hopefully) for special sections that we're all devoting to this particular batch of the 1st 100 days.


NY 20th CD Special Election Update: Recent vote counts from NY's Board of Elections showed Democrat Scott Murphy leading by 365 votes over Republican Jim Tedisco. Nearly 1,800 contested votes remain to be resolved. According to Murphy's camp, 810 contested votes are from registered Democrats, the Green Party and the Working Families Party (likely Murphy votes); 653 are from registered Republicans and Conservatives (likely Tedisco voters); and 310 are from people in other parties or with unlisted registrations.

Given this math, you think Michael Steele and Republicans should scrap Karl Rove's play book in their quest to revive the Party? Before Bush/Rove, the 20th was a Republican stronghold. Perhaps Tedisco should use Former VP Gore's approach rather than that of apparent Former MN Senator Coleman. Get a good job rather than creating billing opportunities for lawyers to dely the 20th CD Congressional representation.

Paul Kane: This special election could ultimately prove that we need to give up on voter registration numbers in some districts. Sort of like how, even after the '94 GOP revolution, there were plenty of districts in the Deep South that had much higher Democratic registration than GOP registration, but there wasn't any hope of a Dem winning that district.

Voter registration is a real lagging indicator. What's ultimately turning out is, the GOP advance spin on this district -- in which they downplayed their chances by pointing out how much Obama, Spitzer, Gillibrand had won the district by -- was actually right. That district has flipped.


Boston: You have confirmed that Rep. Harman was the subject of the wiretap instead of being recorded on a wiretap targeting someone else?

Not to parse words here but your first paragraph ends, "about the fact that Rep. Jane Harman was the subject of a wiretap."

This would imply that the FBI/NSA was wiretapping a sitting member of Congress which would have much broader implications/questions about the process and legal authority of the executive branch to investigate the legislative branch.

If your reporting is correct what are the next questions to be answered? Where does the story go from here? Pelosi Says She Had Been Briefed on Harman Wiretap

Paul Kane: Sorry for the confusion here. But the "target" of the wiretap was the other person Harman was speaking to; after that conversation was overheard, the matter was referred to the FBI/DOJ for consideration of criminal investigation regarding Harman's activities.

The guy leading the coverage on this is Jeff Stein of Congressional Quarterly, and here's what he reported last night:

Intelligence officials, angry that former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had blocked an FBI investigation into Democratic Rep. Jane Harman's interactions with a suspected Israeli agent, tipped off Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, that Harman had been picked up on a court-ordered National Security Agency wiretap targeting the agent.

In doing so, the officials flouted an order by Gonzales not to inform Pelosi, three former national security officials said.

(Subscription required)


Rolla, Mo.: The Democrats appear willing to use budget reconciliation to pass health care reform, if need be, to which the Republicans are having a pre-emptive hissy fit. Am I wrong, or didn't the Republicans use this same procedure in the recent past (welfare reform, Bush's tax cut plans, and even an attempt to use it to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.)?

Paul Kane: Both the Dems and Rs could not be any more hypocritical about the use of reconciliation.

(Uh-oh, someone tell Media Matters, I'm talking about reconciliation, I know there's no issue they love more than reconciliation!)

Here's what it comes down to; earlier this decade, the Rs used reconciliation to pass massive tax cuts in '01 and '03, more than $1.6 trillion worth. This, even though reconciliation was originally dreamed up as a way to get toward deficit reduction.

Now, they are brutally opposed to using this procedure for health-care, education, cap-and-trade, whatever. Say it violates the Senate's love of 60-vote thresholds.


Oh, but what about the Democrats. In '01 and '03, they brutally fought the Rs' use of reconciliation. Back then, they said it was completely improper to use reconciliation this way, that it violated the spirit of the Senate and it violated the spirit of reconciliation (because these tax cuts were blowing a hole in the deficit, not reducing it). Furthermore, on the whole issue of filibusters, in his first real act of leadership when he took over the Democratic caucus, Harry Reid fought the GOP to a draw on the issue of the Democratic minority's ability to filibuster judicial nominees of George Bush's.

Reid called it the single most important thing he had ever done in his 25-plus-year career in Congress.

Now, all that has been cast aside now that Dems are fully in charge. They want to use the authoritarian device of reconciliation to pass a health-care reform bill.



Providence, R.I.: Paul, with all the talk of investigating the torture issue, are any members of Congress who were repeatedly briefed on the techniques by the CIA worried about how their apparent acquiescence will look? Wouldn't any inquiries have to examine congressional responsibility as well? Thanks.

Paul Kane: For what it's worth, people like Jay Rockefeller and Nancy Pelosi -- the top Dems on the Senate and House intell committees back in '02/'03 -- say that their "briefings" weren't really briefings. They were simply told what was happening, and then they were told they weren't allowed to say a single word about what they were told.

They say they were essentially told they'd be breaking the law if they said anything to anybody about what they were told.

At least that's what they say now that all this has come out into the open.


Bethesda, Md.: On the question of torture and violations of the Geneva Convention during the Bush Administration, a compromise between those who want a special commission and those who don't might be to a Truth Commission (modeled after the one that took place in South Africa on the apartheid years). Both parties should agree on the importance of airing the abuses for the sake of historical record but witnesses and perpetrators receive immunity from punishment. There are still so many questions to be answered--how all this connected to the invasion of Iraq, for example.

Paul Kane: This is actually what Pat Leahy has initially proposed. He's willing to give everyone immunity for the sake of learning EVERYTHING that happened.

But Pelosi and many other Dems believe that blanket immunity to everyone would allow those who commited the most heinous crimes (allegedly) to come forward, tell the commission what happened, then get off scot-free. She supports limited immunity, so as to grant it to lower level people who may have actually carried out the interrogation techniques upon orders, allowing them to tell the commission who was ordering them to do so.

It's a tricky question for Dems and the administration.


I spent "40 days in the dessert" too : ...then they kicked me out of the buffet.

Paul Kane: Hey, I said I was in Vegas over the weekend. I ended up getting sick, so I'm on some cold/fever meds. I'm a little foggy. Dessert, desert, it's all the same!

Fyi: My last meal was at the Bay Side Buffet in Mandalay Bay. At $25, way overpriced. Just way too expensive.


Hatch and The Rock: Wasn't Hatch also the same guy hanging out with Jenna Jamison when she was touring the Hill? I won't try to tie that question into your Vegas weekend...

Paul Kane: That was Arlen Specter.

Actually it was Arlen Specter's staffer.

It led to the single most awkward conversation I've ever had with a United States Senator.

Read more here:


New York, N.Y.: What's the difference betwee the "harsh interrogations" I keep reading about in The Post and actual "torture"? If it's the same thing, then why not just call it "torture"? I don't get it. Aren't you guys continuing to catapult Bush-era propaganda when you use such NewSpeak euphemisms for what we all (finally) know was clearly torture, based on U.S. and International law?

Paul Kane: You can't call someone a convicted murderer until he/she has actually been convicted.

Understand? Get it?

The reason we say "alleged" murder and things like that is for our own legal protection. So we can't be sued for libel. Take a look at financial reports on the newspaper business. We're not going to do anything that leads to us losing any more money these days.


New York: Paul, what could Nancy Pelosi do once she was "tipped off" about the Harman matter? Lean on DoJ to pursue an investigation into her colleague? Thanks.

Paul Kane: Pelosi said yesterday that was not in any position to do anything with the information. That she was informed as a matter of fact. Out of courtesy, part of the tradition of informing the top 2 leaders of either party when a lawmaker is caught in such a wiretap.

She said she wasn't allowed to do anything with the information, nor did they tell her much of anything about the nature of what the wiretap was about.

However, if one reads Jeff Stein's stuff in CQ, it seems to me that the intell officials were informing Pelosi about this both out of the "tradition" and out of the hope that Pelosi would then be aware of the incident -- possibly to prevent Harman from becoming chairman of the intelligence committee.

Pelosi swears this had nothing to do with her decision to pass over Harman, that instead it was merely to do with term limits.

My colleague Ben Pershing respectfully disagrees with Pelosi's assertion:


DOJ?: Paul, Why does everybody forget that it's the DOJ that decides what to investigate and what to prosecute. Sure the Congress and Obama administration can investigate (or not) to their heart's content... but the DOJ is constrained by law. If there is credible evidence that crimes were committed, the DOJ must investigate and prosecute. If Obama tries to get them to stop, it would be illegal. Am I missing something?

Paul Kane: Is that you, Arlen Specter? Are you reading these online chats again?

On a serious note, this is the position of Arlen Specter, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee and onetime chairman of Intelligence Committee.

He believes there's no point in any new commission, because the DOJ now has access to everything it needs access to; so if laws were broke, they will pursue people.

The problem with this is, from Leahy's perspective, that the public doesn't have a full accounting of it all, that it's come out in bits and pieces, and there's no definitive record to illustrate what all happened.


Green Bay, Wisconsin: Paul: Doesn't the Constitution require a simple majority of 51 to get things passed?

Paul Kane: No.

The constitution merely says that each body shall set its own rules.

There. Done.


Virginia Beach, VA: Hey, I was at Mandalay Bay last weekend too! You should have eaten at the Mexican problems there and their peach margarita was awesome!

Paul Kane: Peach margarita? Ew.

by the way, someone should outlaw Red Bull.

Or at least let the FDA regulate like a narcotic.

_______________________ Sen. Specter Asks: Who's This Jenna Jameson?


Burke, Va.: Paul, wasn't the Senate Intelligence Committee aware of the enhanced interrogation techniques? Weren't they briefed? As an addendum, how do you like the new U2 album?

Paul Kane: The level of information flowing to the intell committees is a variation.

Pelosi explained it to us this way yesterday. For years she was a rank-and-file member of the committee, and she'd go to all these briefings and get all sorts of information, more than she ever got when she wasn't on the committee.

Then, about 10 years ago, she rose to become the ranking member, the top Dem on the panel. At that point, she and the chairman -- as well as the chairman and ranking on the Senate intell committee -- got pulled into a whole lot more briefings than she ever received as a normal rank-and-file member of the committee. Those 'big four' get way more information than the regular committee folks.

So people on the committees received varying degrees of info.

As for U2, I like the album a lot. I think 'Magnificent' is truly 'Magnificent'. But this still doesn't match 'How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb', which was pure genius, almost matching 'Joshua Tree' or 'Achtung'.


What's controversial?: I don't understand the controversy over investigations and prosecutions for torture and other war crimes. If there was torture, that's a crime. (And we now have no doubt torture occurred.) Since there was indeed a crime, there were criminals. And if there were criminals, there were leaders. Do we know yet who exactly gave/signed the orders to torture - from the Pentagon or even the White House? Is there any way that information won't come out, now that the evidence dam was broken with the publication of those memos and subsequent (drip-drip-drip-FLOOD) reporting?

Paul Kane: See, the problem here with this line of thinking is that there is one definition of torture, forever lasting. The brilliance -- or depraved insanity, given your take on the issue -- of the Bush DOJ office of legal counsel was that it produced documents redefining what torture meant.

It's very hard to prosecute anyone for a crime, when they were specifically told that what they were going to do is not a crime.


Capitol Hill: While I support Al Franken and am a Democrat, isnt it insane to seat him while Norm Coleman is still appealing? If Coleman were to somehow win in the US Supreme Court after Franken had been seated, what would happen to the legislation that had been passed with Franken's votes? Would they become invalid because Franken was never actually elected in the first place so shouldn't have been voting?

Paul Kane: Just so everyone out there realizes it, Al Franken being seated to the Senate will not dramatically alter the legislative landscape. The left has been trying to tout this as a cause of the moment, that there's a grand conspiracy to thwart Obama's agenda by not seating Franken.

Well, in the almost 4 months since Congress was sworn in on Jan. 6, there has been exactly 1 moment where the Dems were 1 vote shy of the 60 votes they needed to pass something: on the $410 billion omnibus legislation funding the federal gov't. Reid announced he was 1 vote short, and instead he allowed 4 more days of debate and amendments, and the legislation then passed without any changes.

That's it, the only time Franken's absence has impacted the landscape on the Senate floor.

(Now, Minnesotans can rightfully argue that having just 1 senator has hurt them.)


Camp Hill, Pa: More of a question for "The Fix", but could you see the 2010 PA Senate election with Arlen Specter going like Sen. Lieberman's 2006 election? Meaning, Specter loses the primary, but runs as an independent, winning 40% of the vote and the election?

Paul Kane: No, this won't happen. That's because Connecticut allows losers in the primaries to then jump in as independents for the general election, and the requirements for getting on the ballot in Connecticut as an indy is fairly easy.

Not so in PA.

There's a 'sore-loser law' that prevents those running in primaries from getting into the general.

Also, more importantly, those who want to qualify as independents in Pennsylvania need to get an enormous amount of signatures to get on the ballot -- 10% of the largest vote getter in the most recent election. So, Jack Wagner won the state auditor's race in '08 with almost 3.4 million votes, meaning any independent would need close to 340,000 signatures of valid registered voters to get on the ballot in November 2010.

This is an almost impossible task.

Arlen's got 1 chance, somehow pulling off the primary win.


Paul Kane: OK, folks, that's it. Time for me to get back to work. It's been a blast, and I'll see you in two weeks. -- pk


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