THAT THE UNITED STATES Senate has a body called the Intelligence Committee is an irony George Orwell would have truly appreciated. In a world without Doublespeak, the panel, chaired by GOP Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, would be known by a more appropriate name — the Senate Coverup Committee.
Although the committee is officially charged with overseeing the nation’s intelligence-gathering operations, its real function in recent years has been to prevent the public from getting hold of any meaningful information about the Bush administration. Hence its never-ending delays of the probe into the bogus weapons intelligence used to justify the invasion of Iraq. And its squelching, on Thursday, of an expected investigation into the administration’s warrantless spying program.
The committee adjourned without voting on a proposal to probe the National Security Agency program, under which government agents have set up wiretaps on Americans without the warrants required by the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. President Bush has acknowledged that he greenlighted the program, essentially claiming that Congress gave him the power to break federal law and violate Americans’ 4th Amendment rights when it authorized the use of force after the 9/11 attacks. Though the administration’s legal defense has been laughable, its argument that the powers are essential to fight terrorism has scored political points, ratcheting up the pressure on the Senate.
Roberts justified his committee’s cave by saying the White House had committed itself to working with senators to pursue legislation on the matter. Translation: Bush won’t accept any curbs on his power whatsoever, but he’d be happy to see a bill legalizing his wiretaps.
There’s a slim chance the House of Representatives might show more backbone. The same day the Senate committee was performing stupid pet tricks for White House table scraps, the House Intelligence Committee approved its own inquiry into the NSA program. Yet the House is still divided on whether the investigation’s scope would involve an intensive look at operational details or merely examine the status of surveillance laws.
There was one piece of good news last week. In a lawsuit filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a federal judge on Thursday ordered the Justice Department to respond to a request for documents on the NSA program within 20 days. Meanwhile, a Kentucky man is preparing a civil-rights suit over the wiretapping. If Congress continues to dither, the courts will be Americans’ last hope for an honest appraisal of the spy program — and for at least a slight brake on the White House’s relentless pursuit of excessive executive branch power.