Memo To Arlen Specter – Do Your Job

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.

***Update***

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.

***Update 2***

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?

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44 replies
  1. 1
    Davebo says:

    Specter a “maverick”?

    I guess he might like to think of himself as such. But does anyone else?

  2. 2
    Edmund Dantes says:

    Quick show of hands. Who didn’t see this one coming?

  3. 3
    Zifnab says:

    Specter a “maverick”?

    I guess he might like to think of himself as such. But does anyone else?

    He’s a maverick in the sense that he sucks but refuses to swallow.

  4. 4
    Lines says:

    Quick show of hands again, who actually believes that Specter wrote that legislation and that we actually have the final version of it?

  5. 5
    Zifnab says:

    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 Specter in fact knew even less than he thought he did.

    This is waht bothers me. A public willing to just get by with the bare minimums because they’ve become so disillusioned with our political representation.

    Bush won’t adhere to all the laws? Well, let’s see what laws he will adhere to. The Senate is being deemed totally irrelevant? Perhaps we just need to find that little something for the Senate to meaningfully occupy its time with.

    It’s a joke. Are we so horribly battered and beaten that we’ll settle for the table-scrapes of accountability?

    What bothers me the most is that somehow in all of this FISA has become a non-functioning program. We’ve had it in existance for thirty-odd years now and only at this moment – when the President has broken the law after the fact – must we consider changing said law out of convience? What’s next, after FISA? Habeaus Corpus seems a bit restricting. Freedom of Speech has been nothing but a bother. Elected representation only lets us put more terrorist-coodling Democrats into power. What checks, balances, and safeguards to our freedom are we going to axe next because our dear President has decided it hampers his ability to fight Terror?

  6. 6
    Don Surber says:

    Zifnab:
    “Freedom of Speech has been nothing but a bother”
    Yes, that is why Michael Moore is in prison. And Kanye West. Oh and you.

    What a joke argument

  7. 7
    Pooh says:

    Well there is a non-trivial argument that FISA is in some ways inadequate regarding modern technologies. The ability to legally do any sort of ‘datamining’ program under FISA is a tricky question. (Gary Farber had a ton of posts in Dec/Jan on that issue)

  8. 8
    Zifnab says:

    Well, maybe Freedom of Speech is overblown. But ask the kids down in Gitmo whether they’re experiencing all the tender kindness that the Geneva Convention promised. Or perhaps you should talk to the voters in Florida from the ’00 race, and voters in Ohio in ’04 whether they felt in any way disenfranchised.

    The point is that if we’re willing to gleefully run ahead and change a law to suit the immediate needs of our President, why have a Legislative branch at all? Why play with the notion that the Executive Branch is somehow beholden to ‘the Law’? They break a law, we change it so they didn’t.

  9. 9
    Pooh says:

    Don, the fact that people aren’t in jail yet doesn’t mean there’s nothing to worry about. Eternal Vigilance for the Kool-Aidless mind, my friend.

  10. 10
    Brian says:

    Yes, that is why Michael Moore is in prison. And Kanye West.

    Huh?

  11. 11
    Andrew says:

    So, if I go and kill someone, but then get a law passed saying that the peculiar way I killed that person is not illegal, i get off scott free, right?

  12. 12
    Brian says:

    people aren’t in jail yet

    What an irrational exhibition of fear this is. Are you really this paranoid?

  13. 13
    Andrew says:

    Don, the fact that people aren’t in jail yet doesn’t mean there’s nothing to worry about. Eternal Vigilance for the Kool-Aidless mind, my friend.

    People have been threatened, arrested and jailed.

    See: free speech zones, Republican National Convention, RNC approved crowds

  14. 14
    Lee says:

    Brian,
    Don Surber’s not the brightest bulb in the marquee. Sarcasm is beyond him.

  15. 15
    Pooh says:

    No, Brian. Just because something bad hasn’t happened yet, you don’t discount the possibility that it could, and then fail to take any precautions. No, what you do is read “My Pet Goat”.

  16. 16
    Far North says:

    I think this illustrates the importance of the Democrats taking back at least one of the chambers of congress. There needs to be a check and balance on this administration. It is a check that Republicans are unwilling to perform.

  17. 17
    KCinDC says:

    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?

  18. 18
    Al Maviva says:

    The quiet subtext of these hearings is that Judiciary is moving to take greater control of intelligence and homeland security, leveraging the media to wrest control away from SCSI/HSCI and the two ad hoc homeland security committees. I guess reducing judicial confirmation hearings into bad vaudeville wasn’t creating enough busy work for them.

    These hearings are all pretty good political bread and circus stuff, but the real show is behind closed doors, and none of us get to look behind that curtain. Well, unless somebody makes some leaks of dubious legality.

  19. 19

    […] An excellent point, from the comments: […]

  20. 20
    Paul L. says:

    Andrew Says:
    People have been threatened, arrested and jailed.

    See: free speech zones, Republican National Convention, RNC approved crowds

    Liberals/Democrats complaining about Republicans stifling Free speech. That’s Rich.
    See: Campus speech codes/free speech zones, Hate speech and using RICO Against Abortion Protestors.

  21. 21
    DougJ says:

    Wow, the wingnuts are out in force in this thread.

    You know, I’ve gotten to kind of like Al Maviva and Don Surber. I think they’re misguided but not dishonest.

  22. 22
    Lines says:

    Once again Paul L has no point except for the one that tops his head.

    Come on, Paul, you can do better, and you can come up with better links that rabid right-wing sites whose tin-foil beanies have become integrated with their tiny little skulls.

    Free speech zones, t-shirts with no partisan message, and more can be drug out as actual occurances. You give us bullshit in return?

  23. 23
    jg says:

    You know, I’ve gotten to kind of like Al Maviva and Don Surber. I think they’re misguided but not dishonest.

    I hope they stick around. Most intelligent conservatives avoid this sight it seems. All we get is Darrells’.

  24. 24
    jg says:

    Of course I meant ‘site’ not ‘sight’. :) This board needs an edit feature (and a ‘last read’ feature too).

  25. 25
    Pb says:

    The difference between Al Maviva and Don Surber is that Al might qualify as an ‘intelligent conservative’, whatever that means. I’ve actually seen Al think about things, consider them. Don, on the other hand, seems never to have met a fact he didn’t ignore.

  26. 26
    Andrew says:

    University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill has been given a speech code rating of Red.

    Nor do they teach Intelligent Design in biology! Nor biblical creationism in cosmology! They are objectively latte drinkers and sushi eaters!

    I love Chapel Hill.

  27. 27
    Pb says:

    Andrew,

    I live next door to Chapel Hill, practically. Sure they’re flakes, but at least their hearts are in the right place. :)

  28. 28
    Ancient Purple says:

    You know, I’ve gotten to kind of like Al Maviva and Don Surber. I think they’re misguided but not dishonest.

    I think you are right about Al. However, Surber is another matter.

    Remember Surber’s claim that the Left was “rooting for civil war” in Iraq?

    Either he is dishonest or a deranged madman.

    I tend not to listen to either.

  29. 29
    chopper says:

    Remember Surber’s claim that the Left was “rooting for civil war” in Iraq?

    heh. what i love is that the right is chock-full of people who are on pins and needles waiting for the ‘end times’ where billions of people (including those infidel muslims in iraq) will get mercilessly croaked and burn in hell forever, but the lefties are rooting for a civil war in iraq.

  30. 30
    Davebo says:

    Big Al Maviva has his own track record of, shall we say, dishonesty.

    http://glenngreenwald.blogspot.....efend.html

    Or should I say “staggering dishonesty”.

  31. 31
    stickler says:

    What’s happened to him between then and now?

    Does Specter invest in racehorses? Have any of them turned up missing a head lately?

    That might explain things.

    Or, he’s just a dishonest hack. Remember, he’s the author of the famous “magic bullet” theory from the Kennedy assassination.

  32. 32
    Lines says:

    The worst part is that Don Surber counts himself as a journamalist.

    Thats the part that disgusts me. He’s so inherently dishonest and he has no viable claim to any sort of un-biased opinion, but he thinks he’s a journalist.

    Pathetic.

  33. 33
    Paddy O'Shea says:

    Look, Hitler ran for office on the idea that Germany lost World War One because the “November Criminals” back in Berlin stabbed the nation and the military in the back and capitulated to the enemy. If it wasn’t for these insidious traitors The Fatherland would have won the war and all would be enjoying Paris Teas with the Kaiser.

    Looks to me like the Bushies are laying the blame game groundwork for our eventual defeat in Iraq.

    “Who Lost Iraq?”

    I’m sure the list will be long.

  34. 34

    It’s an old joke come true: The way you can tell when a Bush administration official is lying is by looking to see if the person’s lips are moving.

    Technically, anyone caught lying to Congress is subject to prosecution, whether formally sworn in or not. The significance of swearing in is to impress the importance of truth-telling to the person about to testify and/or to onlookers.

    As for Gonzales, I get the impression he sees the law, like the truth, as perfectly elastic and always a tool for advancing administration policy.

  35. 35
    D. Mason says:

    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 actually physically makes me want to puke. Pushing legislation to directly disable the 4th amendment. Stalin, Hitler, Polpot take your pick. Those despots did everything Bush is doing, they just didn’t have the balls to put it down on paper for everyone to look at.

  36. 36
    Lines says:

    Godwins Law! Godwins Law!

    I win, now give me my prize!

    Oh, its a fascist nation. Thanks a lot.

  37. 37
    stickler says:

    Oh, Mr. O’Shea is suffering a failure of imagination:

    Looks to me like the Bushies are laying the blame game groundwork for our eventual defeat in Iraq.

    “Who Lost Iraq?”

    I’m sure the list will be long.

    Don’t you remember who “lost” us Vietnam? It wasn’t the generals, it wasn’t Nixon, it wasn’t LBJ. No, it was the hippies and Walter Cronkite! Seriously, read some of the delusional crap spewed by Josh Trevino and his ilk: the Tet Offensive was a great US victory, the North was just about to knuckle under, and then the damned news media and longhaired Jane Fonda worshipers went and ruined it all.

    Or, going back a bit, remember the political hay Senator McCarthy made out of the loaded question, “Who lost China?” Man, that one was good for ten years of hysteria and hyper-nationalism. There’s Reds under the beds!

    The Enemy Within(r): the Gift that Keeps on Giving.

  38. 38
    Mike says:

    “..now let’s see whether the administration will accept any oversight whatsoever, no matter how limited”

    The administration will be happy to let Congress pass its little law. They’ll smile, say thanks and then do whatever they please. In another 2 years when Congress discovers they’ve violated that law too, they’ll just go back to saying that Congress has no authority over the President in a time of war.

    Congress has made itself irrelevant. Maybe FISA is outdated, maybe it isn’t. But the President or the AG need to make that case before Congress, not the other way around. Passing a law to make things easier for the administration, without even waiting for the President to make the request simply makes them into bigger fools.

  39. 39
    Al Maviva says:

    PB, you think Specter really wants straight answers from Gonzales in open hearings? I think he’s having a Colonel Jessup moment, but he’s playing both Jack Nicholas’ and Tom Cruise’s roles.

    Nicholson Specter: Do I want answers?
    Cruise Specter: I’m entitled to them.
    Nicholson Specter: Do I really want answers?
    Cruise Specter: I want the truth!
    Nicholson Specter: I can’t handle the truth!

    A couple basic principles of cross examination are that you don’t ask any questions to which you don’t know the answer, and you don’t give the witness room to wiggle unless you want him to wiggle. Specter was an experienced attorney before he served in the Senate. He knows this, and if he isn’t putting Gonzales under oath, it’s probably because he wants to leave him with room to be evasive, for some reason. If he’s under oath, Gonzales *must* answer the questions, and for some reason, Specter doesn’t want to go there. Feel free to conjecture why. I think it has to do more with the Senate’s parochial, internal political interests than anything else.

  40. 40
    Pooh says:

    PB, you think Specter really wants straight answers from Gonzales in open hearings? I think he’s having a Colonel Jessup moment, but he’s playing both Jack Nicholas’ and Tom Cruise’s roles.

    Nicholson Specter: Do I want answers?
    Cruise Specter: I’m entitled to them.
    Nicholson Specter: Do I really want answers?
    Cruise Specter: I want the truth!
    Nicholson Specter: I can’t handle the truth!

    Close the polls, bar the doors, game over, Al Maviva with PotD

  41. 41
    skip says:

    I’ve always admired Arlen since he went to the mat for the Philly artiste who sawed his mistress into bits, and stored her in a trunk in the basement.
    Spector wanted to do the same to Anita Hill.

  42. 42
    skip says:

    I’ve always admired Arlen since he went to the mat for the Philly artiste who sawed his mistress into bits, and stored her in a trunk in the basement.
    Spector wanted to do the same to Anita Hill.

  43. 43

    […] For a while I’ve been debating with myself exactly how much Arlen Specter (R-PA) values his committee chair. Enough to give a little slack to a notoriously mendacious Administration witness? Sure. He seems to have some residual sense of self-worth, but he never manages to come through when the chips are down. He won’t admit to toadying when he’s outside of the hallowed halls of Congress, but get him near that gavel and goshdarnit Specter can’t help himself. […]

  44. 44

    […] Question: is there anything that Gonzales has explicitly ruled out? Extralegal executions? Heh heh, trick question. Even if Gonzales does categorically rule something out he can always clarify his answer later. Senate testimony will go on meaning diddly-squat until the Republican Senate stops giving fellatio and calling it oversight. […]

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Question: is there anything that Gonzales has explicitly ruled out? Extralegal executions? Heh heh, trick question. Even if Gonzales does categorically rule something out he can always clarify his answer later. Senate testimony will go on meaning diddly-squat until the Republican Senate stops giving fellatio and calling it oversight. […]

  2. […] For a while I’ve been debating with myself exactly how much Arlen Specter (R-PA) values his committee chair. Enough to give a little slack to a notoriously mendacious Administration witness? Sure. He seems to have some residual sense of self-worth, but he never manages to come through when the chips are down. He won’t admit to toadying when he’s outside of the hallowed halls of Congress, but get him near that gavel and goshdarnit Specter can’t help himself. […]

  3. […] An excellent point, from the comments: […]

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