It sounded on Thursday as if Senate committee chairmen were about to flex their oversight muscles.
An angry Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.) summoned Pentagon officials for a briefing on the military's paying for favorable coverage in Iraqi newspapers. And a concerned Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) ordered President Bush's Supreme Court nominee, Samuel A. Alito Jr., to explain documents he wrote expressing his opposition to Roe v. Wade.
But the senators, looking for answers, emerged instead from their meetings yesterday with questions.
"We can't verify this question of payments to the journalists," Warner reported to journalists in the Senate television gallery after his session with Pentagon officials. "More facts are needed."
Does he see evidence of illegality? "We simply do not have all of the facts."
Does the practice need to be stopped? "I wouldn't want to render judgment to stop something until I have all the facts."
Was the distinction between propaganda and factual information blurred? "I don't have enough facts."
What's the most important unanswered question that you have? "Well, seriously, there's so many questions that are unanswered," he replied.
Part of the problem, Warner explained, is that pieces of the program in question are classified, "to protect the interests of our troops."
This started a new line of questioning. If the purpose of the military project is to "get the truth and the facts out," as Warner put it, why is it classified?
"That's the ultimate question you've got to answer," explained Warner, who had apparently not answered it himself. "And, at this moment, I can't give you any facts to help you on that. . . . I have only but a bare initial understanding of why classification is needed."
Specter fared little better than his colleague when he sat down with Alito to talk about the judge's 1985 statement that he did not believe that the Constitution protected a right to abortion, and the legal arguments he later made against the Roe decision but did not mention in his response to a questionnaire from the Judiciary Committee.
Specter, also using the Senate television gallery, gave an account of his hour-long meeting with Alito. "With respect to his personal views on a woman's right to choose," Specter reported, "he says that that is not a matter to be considered in the deliberation on a constitutional issue of a woman's right to choose."
A reporter raised some doubt about whether stating that "the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion" is really a personal opinion rather than a legal opinion. "He identifies that as a personal opinion, as I said before," Specter repeated. "And he said that his personal opinion would not be a factor in his judicial decision."
Well, does he still hold this "personal" opinion? "He did not indicate," Specter said.
The audience was growing more skeptical. "Senator, I'm curious," one of the reporters asked. "Are you here simply to report objectively on what his answers were to you today? Or are you here to say that you were satisfied, even reassured, by the answers he gave you?"
"I'm here to report on his answers," said Specter, who finally acknowledged that he did not share Alito's view that this was a matter of personal opinion.
"Judge Alito categorizes it as a personal opinion; I don't," the senator said.
As politicians, Specter and Warner are at the pinnacle of their profession, both leaders of powerful committees. But they are not quite so practiced as messengers -- Specter describing Alito's abortion views and Warner explaining the Pentagon's position on propaganda. In fairness, they had tough tasks: The Pentagon gave Warner little information, and Alito left Specter with the difficult argument that his belief that a right to abortion is not protected by the Constitution is not a judicial opinion.
Both men dutifully read from handwritten notes of their meetings. Specter, without reading glasses, held his notes at a distance as he tried to read them. Warner announced that he lost a page of notes and asked if anybody had seen it. No one had.
Though lacking answers to crucial questions, the chairmen were certain that nobody was hiding anything. Warner reported that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld "has been 100 percent cooperative," and he added: "I don't detect any effort on the part of Defense . . . of trying to cover up anything. They are working diligently to get the facts out."
Specter, likewise, vouched that "there has not been a coverup" of Alito's abortion views. True, Alito did not include, in his response to the Senate questionnaire seeking any briefs he had worked on, his memo on a prominent abortion case. But, the chairman said, "I think it's a fair conclusion that there's no effort to make any concealment."
Still, Specter couldn't pretend to be satisfied with Alito's answers. "I'm going to reserve judgment on the question as to whether Judge Alito can fairly judge an abortion case until he testifies," Specter said. "It will give considerably greater opportunity for discussion than I had with him today."