By Ron Suskind
Sunday, November 19, 2006; B01
Senate Foreign Relations Committee aides debated last Tuesday whether to call deposed Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to the hearing table for a public flogging. The decision was no -- at least for now. Later that day, I bumped into the incoming committee chairman, presidential hopeful Joseph R. Biden Jr. He said that while there was "extraordinary malfeasance" born of the Iraq crisis, he was planning to stay clear of all that. "That's looking backward," he said. "I'm in the 'action plan' department."
Biden expressed concern about the inquisitorial zeal of some of his "friends in the House," stressing that the key for both chambers will be "attaching all investigations to the broadest public purpose."
The new Democratic Congress may well come down to a series of confrontations between the competing urges to investigate and to lead. Between delving into past wrongdoings and building consensus on how to proceed in Iraq. Between, in a sense, the Democratic Party's show horses and its pit bulls.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), the soon-to-be chairman of the Government Reform Committee, is a classic pit bull. He has dreamed of subpoenas -- issuing them, and placing witnesses under oath -- for
12 years. Biden, meanwhile, is an unabashed show horse. The Delaware Democrat has dreamed of the Oval Office even longer. Both must exist within the new, mandate-infused Democratic Congress, and must figure out a way to survive together.
It's not as easy as it may seem, especially for Democrats. They say they've learned from the long run of Republican rule, but their efforts to adopt the GOP playbook may propel them into an identity crisis. Republicans, after all, are all about hierarchy and top-down decision-making. If everyone on the field uses a different playbook, they like to say, then you lose.
Democrats should be able to both investigate and lead, but it will take an embrace of Republican-style discipline (hardly a Democratic strong suit), an appreciation for deferred gratification (think inauguration day, January 2009) and a shrewd division of labor between pit bulls and show horses.
Here, then, is a playbook for the Democrats -- one that keeps the show horses preening, lets the pit bulls attack, helps the party figure out how to use its new subpoena power to maximum effect and encourages the sort of reality-based disclosures that all citizens, regardless of party, deserve.
First, the Democrats must broker a separation of powers. The show horses are their putative candidates for president, especially in the Senate, and the party's leadership in both chambers. Keep them above the fray, focusing on proposals for the future and the new "action plans," especially in foreign policy. But unleash the pit bulls: the committee chairs, their seconds and investigators who will dig relentlessly, identify targets and thus, inevitably, leave themselves vulnerable in their next reelection campaigns.
I've spent the past several years investigating various aspects of the Bush administration -- including economic policy and the battle against terrorism -- so I know there are so very many targets for the Democrats to choose from. However, there is not unlimited public patience for such efforts. The Democrats should therefore start with the freshest data: Exit polls from the midterm elections showed that concern about Iraq was matched by broader concerns about terrorism and, surprisingly, government corruption.
Indeed, the Bush administration's ability to remain scandal-free until last year's meltdown over lobbyist Jack Abramoff was, in large measure, a triumph of one-party rule over congressional oversight. While lobbyists for energy, health care and the automotive industry have walked through the Bush years in a state of near bliss, congressional watchdogs were defunded and career inspectors general of various departments were replaced by political appointees.
The vast U.S. energy industry may be the ripest target for a corruption investigation. When Vice President Cheney's energy task force was meeting in early 2001 -- meetings whose secrecy Cheney has managed to protect against legal challenge -- the goal of U.S. energy independence was barely an afterthought. Now, with the United States mired in the affairs of petro-dictatorships in the Middle East, even the president has emphasized the need to cure our addiction to oil.
Studied inaction on this front stems from the coziness between the administration and big oil -- a relationship that affects the global warming debate, Iraq, gas prices and oil company profits. Investigations into that relationship are a sure win for the Democrats. Just lining up oil company executives under the hot lights -- much like the seven tobacco company chief executives were lined up in 1994, looking like gray-suited deer -- creates the image, if not necessarily the fact, of activist government. (Suggested witnesses: Lee Raymond, chief executive of Exxon Mobil until this year; Spencer Abraham, former energy secretary; Cheney; and David Addington, Cheney's deputy on many energy matters.)
While some inquests set the table for responsible policy -- much as hearings on pollution helped spur 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act -- most are designed to strengthen accountability and deter future perfidy. The administration's repeated practice of strong-arming experts who stray off message makes for a bevy of high-intensity witnesses. They include global warming experts in various departments as well as Richard Foster, the Health and Human Services accountant who was threatened with dismissal for trying to alert Congress about the deceptive cost estimates on the Medicare prescription drug program. Hearings would show who gave the order to mislead the public on these issues of pressing concern -- a proper investigation for any Congress. (Suggested witnesses: Tom Scully, Foster's boss; James Hansen of NASA; Rick Piltz, formerly of the U.S. Global Change Research Program; and former Environmental Protection Agency director Christine Todd Whitman.)
All this comes before the Democrats even get to Iraq and the manipulation of prewar intelligence, the botched postwar planning and the myriad mistakes made after the invasion.
Oddly, Iraq may be the last place that Democratic investigators want to go, precisely because it is the arena from which the party's key above-the-fray "action plan" must emerge. So much is known from this year's host of Iraq books and stream of media disclosures that hearings would mostly unearth common knowledge -- a patience-trying prospect for a war-fatigued public.
Some Republicans would disagree. The goal of an investigation, and public hearings, they argue, is to destroy the targets. Ruin them, and whatever public purpose they champion is ruined as well. You have to make it personal. That's what people understand -- and that's what will create a public "moment" at a hearing table, one that will echo forward, even if the events in question are long passed.
Over in the people's chamber, some House investigators are quite clear on how to make things personal: Force administration officials to say that they lied or to take the Fifth Amendment. Two areas of modest public purpose, but fierce public passions, are the rescue of Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch and the death of NFL star-turned-Army Ranger Pat Tillman. In both cases, government officials willfully distributed false information. To show how that sort of thing happens -- who crafted and authorized the release -- would lead to the question of whether the practice is part of approved policy, an issue that drives at the very character of this administration. (Suggested witnesses: Jim Wilkinson, deputy national security adviser from 2003 to 2005 and spinmeister for the Iraq war; Dan Bartlett, special assistant to Bush for communications; and Gen. John P. Abizaid, chief of the U.S. Central Command.)
Indeed, the results of the midterm elections suggest that people's eyes are adjusting to the Bush administration's message management innovations. Recent polls show that public concerns over how the government is handling the terrorism threat now surpass concerns over the handling of the Iraq war, which may mean that the administration's overall credibility problems are bleeding into what was once an area of relative strength for the president. Add the foiled terrorist attacks in London in August, and Americans can quite naturally be wondering what we're not being told on the terrorism front.
Unfortunately, as I've encountered repeatedly in my own reporting, discernible reality in the war on terrorism is mostly locked in a vault marked "classified." There is no realm in which more misinformation has been passed to the public, a result of the creative license that a largely secret war affords this -- or any -- government.
A mission of the Democratic Congress that would please both the gods of politics and of public purpose (they don't always intersect) may be to drag that war from the shadows. But it will be difficult. Though members of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees know from interrogation and wiretap scandals that they are ill-equipped to oversee such wide swaths of classified activities, the administration's position on keeping secrets secret is strong. Virtually no one now in the government advocates disclosure -- the default setting is to classify everything.
Democratic-run congressional committees could push for some modicum of transparency in public hearings. Start with whether any Americans who are clearly uninvolved in terrorist activities have been, or are being, wiretapped. The list is long, and addressing it would encourage judicial oversight of that program -- as well as various financial surveillance programs -- rather than keeping it caught in partisan gridlock between executive and legislative branches. (Suggested witnesses: Michael V. Hayden, formerly National Security Agency director, now head of the CIA; Robert S. Mueller III, FBI director; and Charles T. Fote, former chief executive of First Data Corp.)
The list of areas crying out for inquiry is quite long as well. The "war on terror" is a vast undiscovered country. The erosion of global U.S. human intelligence assets since the start of the Iraq war, for example, is harrowing. The fraying threads of international cooperation (as anti-Americanism becomes a path to political success throughout the world) correspond to a dizzying growth of self-activated terrorist cells. And it gets worse. A September 2003 meeting of all pertinent top officials in government, including the president and vice president, discussed how suspected terrorists, identified by the CIA, were lost by the FBI once they entered the United States -- even after the 9/11 attacks. The heated exchanges that day, and numerous similar ones over the past three years, suggest a breakdown in process that will surely be discussed by some commission after the next terrorist attack. (Suggested witnesses: Cheney, Mueller and FBI counterterrorism chief Phil Mudd, formerly at the CIA.)
And while all this proceeds, what about those show horses? Well, they'll steer clear of the hearings and, as one senator recently quipped, "stay away from past-tense words like 'woulda, coulda, or shoulda' " as they develop their action plans. But once the 2008 campaign season heats up, they'll choose among the coming year's subpoena fest for the sharpest disclosures, and wield them in electoral battle.
Or so the playbook reads.
Ron Suskind is author of "The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of its Enemies Since 9/11" (Simon and Schuster).