The Death of the Intelligence Panel


New York Times

March 9, 2006

The wrenching debate in the 1970's over the abuse of presidential power produced two groundbreaking reforms aimed at preventing a president from using war or broader claims of national security to trample Americans' rights.

One was the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which struck the proper balance between national security and bedrock civil liberties, and the other was the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, a symbol of bipartisan leadership. They endured for a quarter of a century until George W. Bush and Dick Cheney left FISA in tatters and the Senate Select Committee on its deathbed in just five years.

The Senate panel has become so paralyzingly partisan that it could not even manage to do its basic job this week and look into President Bush's warrantless spying on Americans' international e-mail and phone calls. Senator Pat Roberts, the chairman, said Tuesday that there would be no investigation. Instead, the committee's Republicans voted to create a subcommittee that is supposed to get reports from the White House on any future warrantless surveillance.

It's breathtakingly cynical. Faced with a president who is almost certainly breaking the law, the Senate sets up a panel to watch him do it and calls that control. This new Senate plan is being presented as a way to increase the supervision of intelligence gathering while giving the spies needed flexibility. But it does no such thing.

The Republicans' idea of supervision involves saying the White House should get a warrant for spying whenever possible. Currently a warrant is needed, period. And that's the right law. The White House has not offered a scrap of evidence that it interferes with antiterrorist operations. Mr. Bush simply decided the law did not apply to him.

It was no surprise that Mr. Roberts led this retreat. He's been blocking an investigation into the domestic spying operation for weeks, just as he has been stonewalling a promised investigation into how the White House hyped the intelligence on Iraq. But it was disappointing to see a principled Republican like Senator Olympia Snowe go along. The Democrats are not blameless, either. Too often, their positions seem like campaign tactics, and Senator John Rockefeller IV fumbled by not consulting Ms. Snowe, who is up for re-election and under intense White House pressure.

But the Republicans deserve the lion's share of the blame. It was Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney who hyped the intelligence on Iraq and the Senate Republicans who helped them evade accountability. And it was Mr. Bush who approved the warrantless wiretapping, which is part of Mr. Cheney's crusade to expand presidential powers. (Unlike the rest of us, Mr. Cheney thought the lesson of Watergate was that the president was not strong enough.)

Ms. Snowe said she would still support an investigation if the new panel uncovered more wrongdoing. But that's hardly likely to happen because the Republicans on the panel are Mr. Roberts, Orrin Hatch, Mike DeWine and Christopher Bond, who march in lock step with the White House.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is still looking into the wiretapping. That committee should have plenty of incentive to go forward its chairman, Senator Arlen Specter, was righteously angry when he received a letter in which Attorney General Alberto Gonzales implied that there was more warrantless spying we don't know about. Mr. Gonzales won't even say that Mr. Bush understands it is blatantly illegal to spy on communications within the United States without a warrant. Nevertheless, there's not much cause for hope: Mr. Specter has a sad habit of bowing to the right wing when the chips are down.

There are moments when leaders simply have to take a stand. It seems to us that one of them is when Americans are in danger of the kind of unchecked surveillance that they thought had died with J. Edgar Hoover, Watergate and spying on Vietnam protesters and civil rights leaders.