When the Senate Judiciary Committee recently invited Alberto Gonzalez to testify regarding the ongoing wiretapping controversy, Democrats suggested that he back up his credibility with a fairly standard sworn oath. Arlen Specter took offense:
Specter grew irritated. “The reason I’m not going to swear him in is not up to him. Attorney General Gonzales is not the chairman. I am.”
When you call a witness with a history of giving misleading – some would say perjurious – testimony to Congress, it seems perfectly rational to add that extra reminder to tell the truth. Recall the administration’s position, that if you’ve got nothing to hide then you’ve got nothing to fear. So what’s up with the bitter controversy that followed Leahy’s request?
From here it looks like Arlen Specter is walking a fine tightrope between his notorious independence and keeping his committee chair. Specter clearly thinks that the NSA program broke the law but he knows that if he runs too far out on the issue Frist will dump him somewhere less influential.
Just like nobody could possibly have expected 9/11 or a levee failure or an Iraqi insurgency or the Spanish Inquisition, it defies belief that Gonzales might have hid something from the Judiciary Committee. And yet, gosh, fool me once, he did.
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales appeared to suggest yesterday that the Bush administration’s warrantless domestic surveillance operations may extend beyond the outlines that the president acknowledged in mid-December.
In a letter yesterday to senators in which he asked to clarify his Feb. 6 testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Gonzales also seemed to imply that the administration’s original legal justification for the program was not as clear-cut as he indicated three weeks ago.
…At least one constitutional scholar who testified before the committee yesterday said in an interview that Gonzales appeared to be hinting that the operation disclosed by the New York Times in mid-December is not the full extent of eavesdropping on U.S. residents conducted without court warrants.
“It seems to me he is conceding that there are other NSA surveillance programs ongoing that the president hasn’t told anyone about,” said Bruce Fein, a government lawyer in the Nixon, Carter and Reagan administrations.
…One government source who has been briefed on the issue confirmed yesterday that the administration believed from the beginning that the president had the constitutional authority to order the eavesdropping, and only more recently added the force resolution (AUMF) argument as a legal justification.
The administration now calls their program a ‘Terrorist Surveillance Program,’ even though it actually monitors the terrorist-adjacent. The program set up to monitor known terrorists is called FISA. But taking the administration at their word, if the warrantless wiretapping that we know about is meant for terrorists, and there’s a program that we don’t know about, who is program #2 meant to monitor?
Beyond that it seems like Gonzales’s letter should remind Specter that Democrats weren’t just playing politics by insisting that Gonzales take the oath. They were doing their job. If a witness has a history of misleading Congress then any further testimony is basically meaningless without an extra reminder to give it straight.
Congress keeps running up against the question of whether it serves any useful purpose in the modern-day balance of government powers. As I’ve pointed out before the White House and a surprising number of Congressional Republicans think that the answer is no. Even a notorious maverick like Specter seems unable to decide between meaningful oversight and declaring himself superfluous. My memo to Specter is simply, do your job. If you think that Congress has any meaningful role as an oversight body then stop letting them take you for a chump.
I’m aware that Specter has sponsored a bill that would semi-legalize the warrantless wiretapping program while giving the FISA court a sort of limited oversight. That seems like a classic sort of neither-here-nor-there move by Specter. A) Specter’s bill does nothing to legalize what the administration has been doing since 2001. If they broke the law it remains broken whether doing the same thing in the future becomes legal. I do appreciate the logic that if FISA law is inadequate then by all means change FISA – now let’s see whether the administration will accept any oversight whatsoever, no matter how limited. Greenwald predicts no. B) It’s hard to declare yourself superfluous any better than to legalize a program that you don’t understand, as explained by an unreliable witness who already thinks that you’re irrelevant. If Specter didn’t know precisely what he was legalizing when he wrote the bill, Gonzales’s ‘clarification’ shows that he in fact knew even less than he thought he did.
All of which underlines the point that Congress can’t credibly act in the absence of knowledge. It’s clear that the White House won’t tell Congress what exactly it has directed the NSA to do. If Congress won’t make the effort to find out what it is that they’re approving, going so far as to keep the secret FISA court in the dark about what has gone on under its own jurisdiction, then they might as well stay home and phone it in for real.
An excellent point, from the comments:
Specter in April 2005:
During my stewardship here, I’m going to put everybody under oath when we have testimony, as we do on confirmation hearings.
What’s happened to him between then and now?