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Don't Look Now

On the Hill

In the hushed halls of the Hart Senate Office Building last Thursday afternoon, there was a bustle of activity outside room H-219. A group of senators streamed through tinted-glass doors, leading to a soundproof steel vault in which the Senate Intelligence Committee holds its classified hearings. An academic-looking man in thin-rimmed glasses arrived with an aide in a white Navy uniform. This was Doug Feith, a senior Pentagon policy official, called to testify as part of the committee's examination of whether prewar intelligence about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was exaggerated or inaccurate. As Feith chatted with staffers, Senator John Warner, a Virginia Republican, strolled up, threw an arm around his shoulder, and led him down the hall, whispering secretively in his ear. Soon Feith and Warner disappeared into the hearing room.

For now, this is the most anyone without a top-secret clearance can see of the Senate Intelligence Committee's inquiry into the Iraq WMD scandal. Some Democrats want to force these hearings into the public eye. One aide dreams of a summer spent "watching these [administration] guys squirm on c-span." But, so far, they have run into two major obstacles. One is the committee chairman, Kansas Republican Pat Roberts, who seems determined to protect the White House from anything but low-key, secret questioning. The other is the committee's ranking Democrat, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, who seems reluctant and ill-prepared to challenge Roberts. Growing political pressure may yet force the committee to mount a more vigorous public investigation. But Democrats aren't counting on either Roberts or Rockefeller to make it happen.

The two senators took over in January, after committee term limits forced their predecessors, Florida Democrat Bob Graham and Alabama Republican Richard Shelby, to step down. In retrospect, Democrats are sorry they're gone. Shelby, although generally a partisan Republican, had an abiding hostility to the intelligence establishment--he has long wanted CIA Director George Tenet fired, for instance--that sometimes led to clashes with the White House. Graham had an obsession with raw intelligence data that gave his stinging critiques of the administration credibility. Roberts, on the other hand--a folksy jokester who has been named "funniest senator" by Washingtonian magazine--is a loyal defender of the White House. As questions have multiplied about the intelligence on Iraq, Roberts has seemed less interested in looking for errors and abuses than in political damage control. In early June, Warner--who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee--told the Los Angeles Times that he would support joint open hearings on the issue with Roberts; Roberts, he assured, "had been receptive to the idea." But, shortly after a Senate GOP meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney the following day, Roberts said such talk was "premature." Since then, Roberts has been busy lashing out at the president's critics. "Some of the attacks have been simply politics and for political gain," he said at a June 11 press conference. "I will not allow the committee to be politicized or to be used as an unwitting tool for any political strategist."

But Roberts hasn't allowed his committee to be used for a substantive investigation, either. Democrats say the inquiry's format is designed to sideline them. Roberts has created four separate areas of inquiry into possible failures of Iraq intelligence: WMD, Al Qaeda links, human rights, and regional threat. The latter two, of course, are not matters of public dispute--and, not coincidentally, are the two topics Roberts has allowed Democratic staffers to oversee. The first two--politically explosive--areas are being managed by GOP staffers. The team investigating WMD issues includes three Republican aides and just one Democrat. Such is Roberts's idea of a "bipartisan" effort. What's more, at least two of the committee's GOP staffers are former officials at the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, a focal point of the current controversy, creating a potential conflict of interest if they're called upon to investigate their own past analyses or those of former colleagues.

Roberts, however, doesn't seem particularly interested in a dispassionate analysis of how the administration developed its claims about Iraq's weapons programs. In fact, the worse the White House's use of prewar intelligence looks, the more Roberts defends it. Last week, on the day CIA Director George Tenet took the fall for a reference in the State of the Union address to Iraq's efforts to acquire uranium in Africa, Roberts issued a remarkable statement complaining not about any breach of credibility but about leaks. "What now concerns me most ..." he said, "is what appears to be a campaign of press leaks by the CIA in an effort to discredit the president." It's a little ironic that Roberts, who fired an intelligence staffer in May for discussing unclassified information outside the committee, is so animated by intelligence leaks. On March 20, the day after the U.S. strike on a bunker where Saddam Hussein was thought to be hiding, Roberts told a group of newspaper editors that the Bush administration had used "what we call human intelligence [that] indicated the location of Saddam Hussein and his leadership." Some intelligence officials were stunned by the comments, which soon appeared throughout the media and may have jeopardized CIA sources in Baghdad. "People flipped out," says one.

Democrats say Rockefeller has not served as a particularly effective counterweight to Roberts. Despite his mighty name, bank account, and six-foot-seven-inch frame, Rockefeller is a low-key figure--a senator in the old collegial mold rather than a media-savvy partisan warrior. And he's a relative newcomer to the world of spooks and secrets, having only joined the intelligence committee in 2001. Some Democrats complain that, in contrast to his predecessor, Graham, Rockefeller lacks the necessary expertise for his current role. Rockefeller himself warned as much last fall, telling Roll Call the committee's term limits were "a big mistake." "I know a lot about health care, but it took me about 10 to 12 years to learn that because it is very complicated. This is much more complicated." Sometimes Rockefeller's learning curve is evident. During a July 12 interview with National Public Radio on the Niger uranium fiasco, for instance, he incorrectly referred to Deputy National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, who apparently played a key role in the episode, as a Cheney aide--a small but important distinction.

More important, Democrats say Rockefeller has allowed Roberts to roll over him. For instance, in early June Rockefeller publicly threatened that, with the support of four other committee Democrats, he could force Roberts to conduct an open investigation. In fact, Rockefeller overstated his power--committee rules only allow members to force a closed meeting--but previous intelligence chairmen have generally honored such minority-party requests for broader investigations. When Roberts refused to observe that precedent, Rockefeller essentially yielded. And, although he had the power to block it, on June 20 Rockefeller signed off on Roberts's plan to hold a handful of closed hearings, with the vague promise of one open hearing in September. The news came "to the serious dismay of the caucus," says a Senate Democratic staffer. "Many in the caucus think Rockefeller is being used."

Rockefeller's defenders say he has been restrained, in part, by a desire not to play into the hands of Republicans eager to dismiss the WMD debate as a partisan game. As long as the press continues to push the Iraq-intelligence story forward, they argue, there's no sense in letting Republicans such as Roberts accuse them of political motives. "Rockefeller has decided he's going to give this an opportunity to play out a little more and make it clear whether Roberts is doing this fairly and objectively," says a Democratic staffer. But this wait-and-see approach ignores the fact that Republicans, including Roberts, are already insisting that the WMD intelligence questions are politically motivated. Nor is there any sign that Roberts plans to play fairly--his insistence on closed-door hearings and his handling of them should have made that abundantly clear. Worse, Democrats risk abdicating responsibility if they overestimate the media's power to keep this story afloat. Reporters confronting the tight-lipped Bush administration may have to let the story drop for want of information, whereas a congressional committee that can subpoena witnesses stands a far better chance of getting to the truth.

Still, some hope that, if the media's revelations get bad enough, even Roberts will be shamed into action. "While [Roberts] has a tendency to be partisan, he also has a fiercely independent streak," says Dan Glickman, a former Kansas congressman who knows Roberts well. "By and large, Pat tries to do the right thing. I don't think he would lay down and play dead just to protect the president if he thought the president was wrong." So far, though, the Intelligence Committee chairman is showing no signs of life, and Rockefeller is doing nothing to resuscitate him.

By Michael Crowley and Spencer Ackerman