Roberts heavy-handed on Intel, Dems charge

Democratic members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence are in a quandary about how to respond after Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) defeated their proposals to change the panel’s rules and investigate the treatment of intelligence detainees.
Patrick g. Ryan
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.)

Roberts’s uncompromising management of the meeting stunned Democratic lawmakers at a closed-door meeting before the congressional recess. They had obliged Roberts to schedule the meeting by sending him a letter signed by seven members, two more than committee rules require to force the chairman’s hand.

Democrats pressed for a committee inquiry into “all presidential and other authorities for detention, interrogation and rendition for the intelligence purposes.”

Their lack of headway poses a dilemma for them: Should they break the committee’s traditional nonpartisanship or keep it? That nonpartisanship gives Republicans only a one-vote advantage over Democrats. But it also gives the majority staff director unique control over almost the entire committee. Some Democrats say sticking to the present arrangement ties them to what they believe is the GOP’s feckless oversight of intelligence.

To gain clout, committee Democrats also sought to change committee rules and, in their reckoning, bring them into line with Senate Resolution 445, the internal reorganizing measure the chamber passed last year to improve oversight of the intelligence community. Roberts agreed to the resolution on a voice vote.

Both of the committee Democrats’ efforts failed. So, despite successfully amending last year’s internal organizing resolution to gain greater control of the committee, Democrats have little more authority in practice.

Sen. Carl Levin (Mich.), a senior Democrat on the committee, called Vice Chairman Jay Rockefeller’s (D-W.Va.) unsuccessful effort to secure more control over staffers a “modest proposal.”

Intelligence Committee proceedings are usually kept quiet, but the highly charged fight over the rules and controversy over detainee treatment have forced details to surface.

One proposed rule change would have given Democratic lawmakers power to hire the staff designated to them without approval by a vote of the full committee. The second would have given majority and minority staff directors joint tasking authority over the staff paid for with Democratic funds. An amendment to S.R. 445 last year gave Democrats control over 40 percent of the panel’s resources, but the Republican staff director has managing control over all but three committee aides.

Roberts would allow Democrats only one vote on changing the rules, forcing them either to combine their two proposals or drop one. Rockefeller elected to drop his proposal on joint tasking authority, apparently in the belief that the changes would have a better prospect of attracting Republican support if voted on individually. The proposal failed on a party-line vote.

But Roberts refused to allow a vote on an inquiry into detainee interrogation, leading some Democrats to speculate that he was attempting to prevent centrist Republican members of the committee such as Sens. Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Mike DeWine (Ohio) from casting what could become a tough vote.

Democrats believe Roberts is attempting to stymie an investigation of detainees to shield the administration from embarrassment. Revelations of the treatment of prisoners in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison was a major embarrassment in Bush’s first term, and recent reports of the deaths of detainees under CIA control, the rendition of prisoners to countries that use torture as an interrogation tool, and the existence of ghost detainees threaten to become a growing scandal in the second term.

“Senator Roberts ran the meeting like a despot,” a congressional aide said. “He would not allow any motion to be made seeking a committee investigation into interrogation issues, even though the requests from Senator Rockefeller for such an investigation went back to February 3rd. Similarly, he did not allow for separate votes on rules changes insisting that it be a consolidated motion. It was shocking, and it left members astounded at the lack of respect in how he conducted the meeting.”

A GOP aide said complaints about allowing Democrats only one vote on changing the rules, as opposed to separate votes on rule changes, created a “distinction without a difference.” The aide said Democrats can call another meeting at which their second proposal, joint tasking authority, can be voted on, and likely would be defeated by another party-line vote.

“They will have accomplished on two separate days what they could do in 30 seconds,” the aide said, adding, “Republicans don’t support these changes.”

Democrats are likely to continue working within the committee to initiate an inquiry on detainee treatment but may become more inclined to take the issue to the floor for a vote. Among the possibilities is the offer of an amendment to legislation that would direct the Intelligence Committee to launch an investigation into detainee abuse or an amendment that would set up an independent commission to look into the issue.

During a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars last month, Roberts defended his decision not to take up a formal investigation of allegations of detainee abuse, saying, “Congress created the CIA’s Office of Inspector General and the Department of Justice to conduct these types of investigations in the first place. Let’s allow them to do their work.

“The Senate Intelligence Committee will carefully examine the results of the CIA inspector general’s work when it is complete, and then, and only then, if we find any shortcomings, would there be any cause for us to conduct our own inquiry.”

But Democrats counter that the committee has previously pursued investigations simultaneously with the CIA’s inspector general.