The senior Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee has warned the Pentagon that he may block the nomination of a new defense policy chief unless documents involving the departing policy head -- Douglas J. Feith -- are turned over for review.
The action by Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) threatens to hold up another important presidential appointment as lawmakers remain deadlocked with the Bush administration over the nomination of John R. Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations. That dispute, too, involves Democratic requests for documents the White House has refused to surrender.
In this instance, Levin is trying to press a probe, begun two years ago, into how Feith and his subordinates shaped the administration's view of the relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda before the U.S. invaded Iraq.
Levin has criticized Feith for portraying the relationship as more extensive and significant than U.S. intelligence agencies thought at the time. Administration officials have defended Feith's prewar efforts as reflecting a legitimate attempt to provide an alternative analysis. The Pentagon produced many documents that Levin requested, but has withheld others, citing confidentiality and legal concerns.
Feith announced in January he intended to step down this summer, and in late March, President Bush put forward Eric S. Edelman, a career diplomat, to succeed Feith as undersecretary of defense for policy.
When Edelman visited the Senate earlier this month in preparation for a confirmation hearing, Levin informed him and other defense officials that the nomination might go nowhere unless more documents were forthcoming.
"This should not be necessary," Levin said in a phone interview yesterday. "But the Senate is entitled to these documents, and I don't know any other way to get them.
"This is what's happening with Bolton," he added. "It's happening too many times around here -- putting holds on nominations. It's a pity this is the way the Senate has to deal with this administration."
A confirmation hearing on Edelman is expected to proceed as scheduled next week. Levin said any move he might make to block the nomination would occur after that.
Delay in approving the nomination would frustrate efforts by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to put in place a fresh team of senior associates. In recent months, Rumsfeld has chosen replacements for the jobs of deputy secretary and undersecretary for acquisition and designated a successor for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Senate action on Gordon R. England to take over the Pentagon's No. 2 position has been embroiled in a dispute between the Armed Services Committee and the Pentagon over financial conflict-of-interest requirements. But England has moved into the job and is serving as acting deputy secretary while officials on both sides continue to search for a way out of the impasse.
Lawrence T. Di Rita, the Pentagon's top spokesman, held out the prospect yesterday that a showdown with Levin could be avoided. But he emphasized the degree to which the Pentagon had cooperated and questioned the need for further Senate inquiry into Feith's office.
"We have provided Senator Levin significant volumes of documents already and are working with Senator Levin and the committee to determine what additional information Senator Levin is interested in," Di Rita said. "Many of the same issues Senator Levin is interested in have been considered in some detail by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which thus far has found no cause for concern with the policy shop and its proper role in reviewing prewar intelligence on Iraq."
Levin launched his inquiry in June 2003, after Armed Services Committee Republicans declined to participate. Last October, he issued a 46-page report that faulted Feith for misrepresenting to Congress the view of U.S. intelligence agencies about the relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda. Levin complained at the time about the difficulty he and his staff had obtaining documents for the inquiry, saying in an Oct. 6 letter to Rumsfeld that the Pentagon's "delays and refusals are intolerable and unacceptable."
Since then, Levin has received additional documents, a number of which needed CIA clearance. But according to Levin's staff, the Pentagon continues to withhold two sets of documents: one referred to as "advisory and deliberative materials and internal legal analyses"; the other said to be for use in possible prosecution of foreign nationals.