Wednesday, March 08, 2006

News from the Hill

ThinkProgress reviews the ways in which Senator Roberts has interfered with Congressional oversight.

In talking to people around the Senate, there's the distinct impression that the committee vote yesterday was an attempt by Republicans on the committee to provide cover for the White House. "Accommodation" is the catch-phrase in Senator Roberts' office, and that sounds a bit too Chamberlain-ish for my taste. Other Washington insiders described the committee's actions as "face-saving," "a smoke screen," and "outrageous."

People who wrote letters during the Kansas Roots Project should be proud of themselves. We changed the dynamic and forced the Senate to approach the matter differently. The result was still an Intelligence Committee which Senate Democrats referred to as "negligent on oversight," but they had to pretend. If we keep up the pressure, we may get real results down the line.
There was hope that the Republicans on the committee would not simply follow the party line, their decision to fall in line did not surprise Senate Democrats. Senator Rockefeller said "I continue to believe that legislating without knowing all the facts could do more harm than good. I’m hopeful that all members of this new panel will share the same goal of informing legislative debate before taking steps to strengthen the program for the future." A spokesman for Senator Reid said it was "putting the cart before the horse," to rewrite the law before there's an investigation into what the program does and doesn't do.

Senator Rockefeller continued "A thorough review by the full committee would have given the American people much more confidence in achieving that goal, and I will continue to fight for the full committee to have access to this program.… Now, the big test will be whether the seven member subcommittee will receive sufficient information to fully scrutinize the operations of the program and answer the critical legal and constitutional questions before them." Sources in the Senate and in groups watching the process remain unclear about the exact details of the new committee's powers, and staff in the Intelligence Committee or Senator Roberts' office did not return emails or phone calls at press time.

TfK had a chance to speak with Lisa Graves of the ACLU, formerly a Deputy AG in Justice and once on the Judiciary Committee's staff. She made an important point, that if the program were producing regular results, the Administration would have been leaking details to promote it, rather than hiding it for four years. The cost of the program in human time, in storage, and in resources, is still classified, and without understanding how much it cost, we can't assess whether the program has made us "not only less free, but less safe."

While it's not clear what comes next for people who want Congressional action, advocates of real oversight are not out of options. The ACLU and Center for Constitutional Rights have two separate lawsuits under way, but those could take months or years to move through the system. Senate Democrats insist that they haven't finished fighting either. On a local level, letters to congresscritters, letters to the editor, and calls to district offices will continue to be important, emphasizing local concerns about civil liberties, constitutional checks and balances, and appropriate safeguards.

It may also be time to turn our attention to the House. I'm not sure that Representative Tiahrt, who sits on the Intelligence Committee, has said anything about the NSA surveillance, but he spoke out against the Dubai ports deal. Maybe some Fourth District readers can follow up with his office.