At the same
time, the Bush administration is going directly to the public
with its war message. Raul Damas, associate director of political
affairs at the White House, has been on the phone directly to
Republican county chairmen to arrange local speeches by active
duty military personnel to talk about their experiences in Iraq.
To some Republican members, this unusual venture connotes a desire
to go directly to the people to sell the president's position
without having to deal with members of Congress.
on Capitol Hill, a conflict appears to be underway within the
administration. The dominant hard line against sharing information
with Congress on electronic surveillance and other questions is
pressed by Cheney, often represented by his new chief of staff
and former general counsel, David S. Addington. Now, it appears
that Gonzales, while refusing to say much Monday when he testified
before the Senate Judiciary Committee, was putting out an invitation
for collaboration by Congress.
issue is how much President Bush needs to reveal to Congress about
covert telephone surveillance of conversations by U.S. citizens
with suspected terrorists overseas. But the debate goes deeper.
American presidents in wartime have been reluctant to share information
with Congress, and this fits George W. Bush's inclinations. Democrats,
delighted to make a midterm election issue of "eavesdropping,"
seize on the administration's refusal to share information with
the legislative branch.
a square shooter from Dodge City, Kan., over the years usually
has answered my questions. When I asked him about the vice president's
"no upside" comments to him, however, he did not deny
his saying it but told me: "I'm not going to comment about
Cheney." It is no wonder that Roberts, who is close to Cheney,
was not inclined to discuss or dispute his comments. Having spent
more than 40 years on Capitol Hill, as first a staffer and then
a member in both Houses of Congress, Roberts does not easily acquiesce
to executive superiority.
But in heading
the Intelligence Committee, Roberts finds himself in a difficult
position. He has complained to other committee members that he
finds it hard to cope with his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Jay
Rockefeller. Rockefeller in private conversations with Roberts
tends to take a measured bipartisan approach in dealing with presidential
authority to eavesdrop on suspected terrorists. But publicly,
the committee's top Democrat assumes a confrontational position
for Roberts is that the Democratic reins on the Intelligence Committee
are held not by Rockefeller but by two of the most partisan members
of the Senate: Carl Levin and Minority Whip Richard Durbin. Never
known as a political battler, Roberts showed his frustration with
the Democrats recently by publicly taking issue with Democratic
National Chairman Howard Dean's comparison of George W. Bush to
Richard Nixon on the surveillance issue.
calls to individual county chairmen by White House aide Damas
is interpreted by some Capitol Hill Republicans as continuing
the administration's policy of non-cooperation. Damas, who until
last year was a Republican National Committee staffer, did not
inform governors, state chairmen or members of Congress that he
was sending on-duty soldiers into their states to speak in their
districts. Damas did not return my telephone call for comment.
On the surface,
Monday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing seemed more of the
same. Gonzales, not the most astute witness for the administration,
unequivocally defended the eavesdropping program. Democrats responded
with their familiar accusation of civil liberties abused. But
with a careful listening, the attorney general did come over as
conciliatory by at least offering to discuss the question with
senators. Even Teddy Kennedy seemed relatively civil in being
open to cooperation. The question is whether the president will
decide that informing Congress really has an upside for him.