Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance refused yesterday to tell Congress about his conversations with President Carter or other details leading to the controversial U.S. vote for a United Nations resolution condemning Israeli settlements in occupied Arab territory.
In his second day of congressional testimony about the vote and its subsequent repudiation by Carter, Vance contined to insist that it did not represent a shift of U.S. policy toward Israel.
"I can assure you there was no underhanded, scurrilous, devilish plot whatsoever," Vance said in response to skeptical questioning from members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
But when members pressed for details of the administration's decision making process, Vance retreated behind a warning that he would ask Carter to invoke "executive privilege."
"I think it would be highly improper for me to go into the discussions I had with the president of the United States," Vance said. "Traditionally such conversations have not been a subject for a Cabinet officer to talk about."
That led to a strained exchange between Vance and Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman (D-N.Y.), one of three sponsors of a House "resolution of inquiry calling on the president to turn over to the House all documents relating to the U.N. vote.
"I do not think it would be appropriate to do so," Vance told Holtzman. "I think your questions can all be answered by me when appropriate. I am one who feels very strongly about launching into witch hunts aimed at lower-ranking officers in the policy process."
He added, "If you press your issue, I will have to take it to the president, and he will have to make a decision." As Vance noted, only the president has the power to invoke executive privilege.
The general tone of the comments from other panel members made clear that there is little sentiment within the committee for pursuing the resolution to the point of confrontation with the White House.
If the committee refuses to act on the resolution, Holtzman or either of her cosponsors can take it to the House floor, she told reporters after the hearing that she was undecided about whether to press the matter.
When reporters sought other opinions about the status of the resolution, one committee member, who asked not to be identified, said: "I guess you could say it's in the intensive-care unit and not likely to get out."
In other respects, Vance's testimony yesterday largely duplicated his testimony Thursday before the Senate foreign Relations Committee. As he did then, Vance yesterday took the blame for "the failure in communication" that led the president to disavow the March 1 U.N. vote.
"I am the secretary of state," he said. "I am responsible for the conduct of foreign affairs. The mistake was my mistake and I am the one who should bear the responsibility."
Despite Vance's words, several committee members said the blame for the voting mix-up should go to Carter.
"I myself hold the president responsible for what happened, and it's naive to think otherwise," said Rep. Benjamin Rosenthal (D-N.Y.). Rep. Jonathan Bingham (D-N.Y.) told Vance:
"In allowing you to accept responsibility, the president was forgetting the sound admonition of President Truman that 'the buck stops here.'"
As he did before the Senate committee, Vance said that the United States voted for the U.N. Security Council resolution as a means of signaling to Israel U.S. concern that the settlements issue "had begun to jeopardize" the Middle East negotiations on a self-governing system for the Palestinian inhabitants of the occupied territories.
On March 3, Carter disavowed the vote, saying that because of a misunderstanding between him and Vance, he had been unaware that the resolution contained unacceptable references to East Jerusalem as "occupied territory."
Under questioning, Vance conceded that the United States considers East Jerusalem "occupied territory" and that similar references had been included in U.N. General Assembly resolutions that the United States has voted for in the past. In fact, he said the terminology about East Jerusalem has appeared so often in U.N. official documents that he described it as "boilerplate."
In that case, some committee members asked, why did Carter find such references to Jerusalem so objectionable that he felt obliged to disavow the U.S. vote?
Vance responded that "the references have to be seen in the context of the present phase of the continuing negotiations" about the occupied territories. Carter, he explained, was concerned that the references would inject a highly emotional issue into the Middle East talks and possibly impede their progress.