After repeated criticism of the Bush administration, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee yesterday gaveled a hearing to a close and walked out while Democrats continued to testify -- but with their microphones shut off.
The hearing's announced topic was the USA Patriot Act, which granted broad new powers to federal law enforcement after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The Republicans had presented several witnesses at earlier hearings who supported the administration's call for reauthorizing the legislation. But yesterday, when four witnesses handpicked by the Democrats launched into a broad denunciations of President Bush's war on terrorism and the condition of detainees at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) showed his pique.
He urged witnesses to "wrap it up" and repeatedly told committee members that their time for questioning had expired.
"We ought to stick to the subject," the chairman scolded at the end. "The Patriot Act has nothing to do with Guantanamo Bay. The Patriot Act has nothing to do with enemy combatants. The Patriot Act has nothing to do with indefinite detentions."
"Will the gentleman yield?" Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) asked.
"No, I will not yield," replied Sensenbrenner, 61, the heir to a paper fortune who is known for a brusque insistence on decorum. He completed his reproof of the witnesses and left the Rayburn House Office Building hearing room amid a cacophony of protests from Democrats seeking to be recognized.
Democrats charged that the episode was another example of Republicans abusing their control of Congress and trying to stifle dissent over Bush's approach to counterterrorism. During the two-hour hearing, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) accused Amnesty International of endangering U.S. soldiers because a top official of the group had called the prison at Guantanamo Bay a "gulag." Sensenbrenner did not allow a group official who was testifying, Chip Pitts, chairman of Amnesty International USA, to respond until Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) raised a "point of decency."
C-SPAN2 continued televising the proceedings for six minutes after Sensenbrenner had departed, with lettering on the screen explaining the strange circumstances.
Democrats said the incident was reminiscent of a hearing in 2003 in which Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) summoned a Capitol Police officer during a heated exchange between members of the two parties.
As Sensenbrenner left, Nadler continued talking and was applauded after saying that "part of the problem is that we have not had the opportunity to have hearings on all these other administration policies that have led to abuses."
"The other thing that I wanted to say -- and that I will say at this point, even though the chairman is not going to listen," Nadler said.
Then his voice faded out. "I notice that my mike was turned off," Nadler said, speaking up, "but I can be heard anyway."
One of the witnesses then began giving impromptu testimony. James J. Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, said he thought the turn of events was "totally inappropriate -- no mike on, and no record being kept."
"But I think as we are lecturing foreign governments about the conduct of their behavior with regard to opposition," Zogby said, "I'm really troubled about what kind of message this is going to teach to other countries in the world about how they ought to conduct an open society that allows for an opposition with rights."
The other witnesses arranged by the Democrats were Carlina Tapia-Ruano of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and Deborah N. Pearlstein of the U.S. Law and Security Program at Human Rights First.
Congress is debating what changes to make when reauthorizing the Patriot Act, which expanded the power of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to intercept information and share data obtained through foreign and domestic surveillance. Congress passed the act with scant dissent six weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Most of the provisions are not considered controversial.
For a second day, Bush said federal, state and local law enforcement officials will be hamstrung if Congress fails to permanently renew the 16 provisions of the Patriot Act set to expire at the end of this year. "The Patriot Act has made a difference for those on the front line of taking the information you have gathered and using it to protect the American people," Bush told employees at the National Counterterrorism Center in Tysons Corner.
Sens. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) recently told a congressional committee they have not documented any cases of abuse of the act, but only because the law makes it nearly impossible for Congress to provide thorough oversight and investigate possible misuses of the law.
Staff writer Jim VandeHei contributed to this report.