Thursday, November 6, 2003

Senior Senate Republicans said yesterday that unless Democrats disavow a plot to use the traditionally nonpartisan intelligence committee to wage political attacks on the Bush administration, they would consider taking away Democrats’ power-sharing privileges.

Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, said that if Democrats expect cooperation from the White House in the investigation of intelligence failures that preceded the war in Iraq, “they’ve got to stop the politics.”

“If they don’t, I think we have to change the whole [nonpartisan] nature of the committee,” Mr. Santorum said.

A memo written by a staffer for committee co-chairman Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat, and leaked to the press Tuesday, suggested Democrats “pull the majority along as far as we can,” then “take full advantage” of committee rules to “among other things, castigate the majority for seeking to limit the scope of the inquiry.”

The memo suggested that the best time to “pull the trigger on an independent investigation” of the Bush administration would be next year, when the president will be campaigning for re-election.

“Intelligence issues are clearly secondary to the public’s concern regarding the insurgency in Iraq,” the memo says. “The approach outlined above seems to offer the best prospect for exposing the administration’s dubious motives.”

Mr. Santorum said Democratic senators “were either responsible for ordering that memo or some staff person generated it on his own.”

“My feeling is, if they were responsible, they’ve got to claim responsibility. They’ve got to disavow this tactic and let the buck stop where it is,” Mr. Santorum said.

Mr. Rockefeller said there was nothing to disavow and wondered if the rift between Republicans and Democrats on the issue was genuine.

“Has it been created, or is it really a rift?” Mr. Rockefeller said last night. “There are created rifts and there are rifts, and I’m not sure which category this falls into.”

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Georgia Republican and member of the intelligence committee, said Democrats have a responsibility “to tell us where [the memo] came from … and to have that staffer removed.”

“This has the potential to change the way the intelligence committee operates,” Mr. Chambliss said.

Democrats also want to know where the memo came from and have called for an investigation into how the document was leaked to the press. Mr. Rockefeller, however, was less enthusiastic about such a move.

“I’m not there yet,” he said. “It might come to that. But I’m much more interested in getting the committee back together again. That is much more important.”

The Senate intelligence committee is unique in that it does not have a majority chairman with near absolute power and a minority ranking member who can do little more than loudly voice objections.

Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican, and Mr. Rockefeller are listed as co-chairmen, and either one can preside over a hearing. According to committee rules, the staff is also considered full time and is not divided between the two competing parties, but is rather obligated to work for the committee as a whole.

The memo suggested taking advantage of the special rule that allows either party to begin an official investigation of its own by simply gathering the signatures of five of the committee’s eight party members.

“We would attract more coverage and have greater credibility in that context than one in which we simply launch an independent investigation based on principled but vague notions regarding the ‘use’ of intelligence,” the memo says.

The Republicans hold a one-vote majority on the panel and could use that edge to reconfigure the committee’s rules and structure.

Mr. Rockefeller said on CNN yesterday that Republicans are wrong to think the Democrats have a strategy to use classified information for political advantage.

“That’s a natural thing to say, but if you’re serious about intelligence, you don’t think like that,” Mr. Rockefeller said. “I have absolutely no intention of even approaching anything like that.”

The regular weekly committee meeting scheduled for yesterday was canceled because, according to a source, of the still-raw feelings over the memo.

Mr. Rockefeller had no comment on Republican threats to reconfigure the intelligence committee.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat and committee member, suggested it was time to move on.

“We need to create an environment of bipartisanship cooperation,” Mr. Durbin said. “To have this last partisan fling, this doesn’t strike me as cooperative.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican and former intelligence committee chairman, has called for an investigation into who wrote the memo and why.

“I hope no senators are involved,” Mr. Specter said. “But on the face of this memorandum, I think an inquiry has to be made. The intelligence committee cannot function with this kind of cloud hanging over it.”

Mr. Specter added that the memo controversy, if left uninvestigated, “is a built-in excuse for intelligence agencies not to cooperate.”

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