Senator Arlen Specter (PA) has been one of the most outspoken Republicant critics of President Bush’s recently revealed NSA wiretap program. He’s balked at its alleged legality, and has even said that impeachment may be a remedy if Bush has committed a crime.
But at the beginning of yesterday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on domestic spying, Chairman Specter inexplicably said it was “not necessary” for sole witness Attorney General Alberto “Gonzo” Gonzales to be sworn in.
There shouldn’t be an option to speak without being sworn in. We can’t assume any witness’ honesty. If there were trust about the NSA issue within the public and legislative sectors, we wouldn’t be having these hearings.
I imagine Specter has been privately hammered by fellow Republicants over his criticism of the president’s policies. This may have been his concession to them.
Specter also forbade Democrats from playing two videos: one of Bush saying in 2004 that wiretaps require a court order, and another of Gonzo saying last year that it’s not the president’s policy to perform extralegal surveillance.
Does Specter not find these statements germane to the proceedings? Would convenience store security camera footage not be relevant in an armed robbery trial regarding said store?
Typically, these committees are so deferential to authorities and so concerned with decorum that they forget the reason they’re there. It’s almost as if they’d feel rude to hold anyone to account for anything.
Gonzo’s defense of Bush has been very thin, and got no thicker during the hearings. He again stated that Congress gave Bush the power of illegal taps after 9/11 with the authorization to use military force (AUMF) against Afghanistan. That power, not stated in AUMF, is apparently implicit.
He continued to use fear to justify the president’s usurpation of spying authority: "To end the program now would afford our enemy dangerous and potential deadly new room for operation within our borders."
He couldn’t adequately explain why the president didn’t ask Congress for permission to broaden his wiretap powers if current ones were lacking. Actually, Gonzo previously stated that the president had approached Congress and been turned down, proving he knows the taps were not authorized.
Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy (VT) pressed Gonzo to explain exactly when Bush determined AUMF gave him illicit wiretap power. Gonzo initially said “from the very outset” of AUMF in 2001, but eventually admitted it was 2004 before Bush first consulted Congress about it.
Democrats did a fair job of questioning Gonzo, though he didn’t provide many answers. Senator Ted Kennedy (MA) was unusually calm. Chuck Schumer (NY) who on the radio sounds curiously like George Segal, was direct as always. Russ Feingold (WI) accused Gonzo of being “deceptive” in his testimony. And Joe Biden (DE) insisted Gonzo get back to him about questions he couldn’t answer.
Gonzo of course blamed the media for misinformation about the domestic spying program. This is a patented Rovian tactic: Lash out at the media to distract from your own culpability; the minions can always be depended upon to follow suit.
Republican Jeff Sessions (AL), joined in the media bashing, and said it was “not fair” to suggest the president and the Attorney General have done wrong – even in the face of overwhelming evidence they have. Remember, when the taps were exposed, Bush’s reply was essentially, “Yeah we did it, and we’ll do it again, too, punk.”
Sessions used a 9/11 pilot’s sister as a prop to underscore the need to prevent terrorist acts. He fails to realize no one’s against that; the problem is illegal taps on non-terrorists.
Sessions was part of a Bush apologist chorus that also included John Cornyn (TX), Sam Brownback (KS) and John Kyl (AZ). These men focused on criticizing the president’s critics, extolling the virtues of the spying program, and basically kissing presidential butt during their Q&A.
Brownback made the mistake of quoting recent statements by Osama bin Laden and other terrorists to point out ongoing threats. In doing so, he reminded everyone of our ongoing failure to capture or kill Terror Enemy #1 and his pals.
To their credit, some Republicants did not just pat Gonzo on the back.
Senator Lindsey Graham (SC) said Gonzo was putting forth a “dangerous argument” regarding the president’s “inherent authority” to act as he sees fit on national security issues. Essentially, he believes that stance could “neuter” Congress and leave the government with no checks and balances.
Specter stated Bush “does not have a blank check” and that, despite his assertions to the contrary, the president had not obtained permission from Congress to conduct domestic espionage.
Chairman Specter plans to hold a few more domestic spying hearings with additional witnesses. But if they too lack sworn testimony and any real answers, they’ll have as little credibility as Monday’s hearings.
If the Republicant record on accountability is an indication of what may ultimately come out of these hearings, the president has nothing to fear. They may just turn out to be a chance for Congress to publicly scold Gonzo, thereby sating both consternative wiretap opponents and consternative supporters. A brief detour before returning to the status quo.
I yearn to be proven wrong.