By Helen Fessenden and Jackie Kucinich
May 01, 2007
Following a subpoena to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and a letter to former CIA Director George Tenet last week, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee may cast an even wider net in its probe into why the administration made false pre-war claims that Iraq was seeking to acquire uranium from Niger.
The panel’s chairman, Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), said last Thursday that the panel had not yet made a decision on how many more individuals it would contact, but indicated that he may consider it.
“We’ll take this one step at a time, and we’ll see,” he said. “I still think Rice will come in the end, but so far we’ve just gotten stonewalled.”
Regarding other names, a Democratic committee aide said “nothing is ruled out,” but added that “we’re just very early in the process.”
Rice has so far refused to meet with the committee on the matter and said on Sunday she would not comply with the subpoena. Through an aide, she has sent several letters to the panel, but Waxman has called those responses insufficient and vague. He has been sending letters to Rice regarding the uranium claim since spring 2003.
Some of the other names that have surfaced in this story include Alan Foley of the CIA and Robert Joseph of the National Security Council, who negotiated the language in President Bush’s 2003 State of the Union speech that Iraq was seeking to buy uranium from Africa. There is also Rocco Martino, the Italian free-lance operative who peddled the forged documents that were the genesis of this claim, which ultimately found its way into the State of the Union speech even though Tenet had previously intervened to take out similar language in an earlier speech.
Several members expressed strong interest in hearing from these individuals, and the panel’s ranking Republican, Tom Davis (R-Va.) said it would be “entirely appropriate to bring in others” even though he opposed the subpoena for Rice.
On their part, Democrats expressed strong interest in broadening the probe.
“I’d love to talk to Martino in particular,” said panel member Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.).
“It’s important to bring in whoever can shed light on this,” agreed Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).
Davis and other Republicans argue that bringing in Rice would be a time-consuming distraction from her duties as secretary of state, and that two U.S. probes—under the Senate Intelligence Committee and the independent Silberman-Robb commission—have already looked into the question of faulty pre-war intelligence.
Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.) said Thursday that this debate “is like the Clinton impeachment. I voted against it because there was no purpose. In this case, I understand why the Democrats want to kick Bush, but what would it achieve?”
Democrats counter that those two inquiries were Republican-run and avoided the question of why top officials used that intelligence to make their pre-war claims. The Senate Intelligence Committee is still working on the second part of its inquiry, which looks at the politicization of intelligence, but has not completed its work yet.
While the panel ponders its next move, Waxman has indicated that, at least for now, he is not yet ready to consider the more drastic option of invoking contempt to bring Rice before the panel.
“We’re not there yet,” said Waxman.
As of yesterday, a spokeswoman for Waxman said little has changed despite Rice’s remarks Sunday.
But the standoff could take an interesting twist if the two sides fail to reach an agreement.
If Waxman ultimately chooses to cite Rice for failure to respond to the subpoena, and a resolution to hold her in contempt passes the House floor, her case could land at the foot of embattled colleague Attorney General Albert Gonzales, according to House rules.
According to a Congressional Research Service report, if an individual refuses to comply with a House-issued subpoena, a committee could hold the individual in contempt of Congress, an offense punishable by up to one year in prison and/or a $1,000 fine. To enforce the contempt of Congress, the House must pass the resolution with a simple majority.
If the House approves, the resolution would be sent to the Office of the U.S. Attorney for prosecution.
According to congressional analyst Ilona Nickels, the U.S. attorney could then choose to call in a grand jury to decide whether to indict and prosecute.
Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, said that it would be unfortunate that the oversight of a White House official could fall under the responsibility of another White House official.
“This is an unfortunate wrinkle in the separation of powers,” Lilly said. “I think the House would have the standing to get a court order for her to appear in civil court.”
Lilly added, “It makes the nature of this issue a little more dramatic, considering the problems of the attorney general.”
According to Nickels, Anne Gorsuch, a former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, was the last administration official to be held in contempt. In 1982, the House voted to cite Gorsuch after she refused to provide requested documents concerning the Superfund to the Energy and Commerce Committee, then chaired by Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.).
But her case was never prosecuted because the Reagan White House eventually arranged an agreement to give the chairman access to the requested papers, Nickels wrote.