The House Select Committee on Assassinations may have to stave off some stiff criticism on the House floor today in its effort to win new life in the 95th Congress.
Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez (D-Tex.), who is expected to become the new chairman of the committee, said last night that he may even seek to withdraw the resolution reviving the committee. The decision will depend on a final head count at the Democratic caucus in the morning.
Gonzalez acknowledged that the resolution might not have the needed two-thirds majority on the House floor because of "erroneous impressions" that have built up about the committee's investigations in recent weeks.
If the resolution does come up as scheduled, Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.), chairman of the House subcommittee on constitutional rights, said he intends to press for detailed assurances that the civil liberties of those who come under investigation or who are sought as witnesses by the Assassinations Committee will be properly safeguarded.
"I'm just trying to make sure we're not creating a monster here," Edwards said.
After a meeting with Edwards yesterday afternoon, Gonzaley specifically disavowed some of the plans announced by the chief counsel of the Assassinations Committee, Richard A. Sprague, Gonzalez indicated he would have vetoed them if he had been chairman from the outset.
"My own feeling is that many questions have been raised concerning issues I had nothing to do with," Gonzalez told a reporter. The committee was created last September to investigate the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Rep. Thomas N. Downing (D-Va.), who has now retired from the House, was appointed chairman.
Since then, sharp objections have been raised to a number of th Assassinations Committee's proposed purchases and investigating techniques. With Downing still chairman, the committee staff recently sought approval to buy five Suctions-cup devices that are used to tape-record telephone conversations. In another letter submitted under Downing's name, the committee sought authority to install "transmitter cutoff arrangements for listening in purposes on two of the committee telephones."
House Administration Committee Chairman Frank Thompson Jr. (D-N.J.) rejected both of those requests, which apparently originated with the Assassinations Committee's office manager, former Downing aide Rick Feeney. Thompson said he was unalterably opposed to the utilization of wiretap and other devices to intrude upon a citizen's right of privacy by congressional committees for investigation purposes."
Such criticisms were expected to come up on the House floor today inconnection with the new resolution reestablishing the assassinations panel for the next two years. The resolution was scheduled for action under suspension-of-the-rules procedures, which prohibit any amendments but also require two-thirds approval for passage.
If the resolution is pulled off the calendar, it will have to wait for clearance by the House rules Committee, presumably sometime later in the month, and then floor action under normal rules requiring only a simple majority. Even this would not revive the commitee on a temporary basis, pending an even more spirited debate over its projected $6.5 million-a-year budget.
After his 90-minute meeting with Edwards, Gonzalez said he would press for adoption by the Assassinations Committee of rules and procedural safeguards to make clear that the panels does not intend, as Edwards has suggested, to "indulge in a temporary suspension of the Bill of Rights."
For his part, Edwards said he was satisfied that Gonzalez wants to conduct "a low-key, responsible investigation."
"It's always difficult to come in the middle like he's doing," Edwards said.
Emphasizing that he was speaking for just himself at this point, Gonzalez not only disavowed the telephone gadgetry that Thompson disapproved, but he also expressed distaste for some of the equipment chief counsel Sprague wants to purchase, such as two "mini-phone recording devices."
The $2,200 kits feature tiny transmitters that can be hidden in the clothing of committee investigators. Sprague has denied that they would be used to make secret tape-recordings. But he insisted that the equipment would be needed for "certain survelliance activities" he was contemplating, such as tailing witnesses after they've been interrogated.