Leahy flexes muscle
True, the Vermont Democrat's inquiries into the administration's classified programs have been rebuffed time and again, prompting sharp scolding from the senator during hearings with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales earlier this year.
But this time Leahy is flexing new muscle as the incoming Judiciary Committee chairman. He promised Wednesday to issue subpoenas if the administration refuses to disclose documents -- including an alleged presidential order -- that could reveal internal deliberations in designing controversial national security programs.
"I expect to get the answers. If I don't, I believe we should subpoena them," Leahy responded in a question and answer session after speaking Wednesday about his priorities for the committee at Georgetown University Law Center.
"I'm not trying to set up the idea of a confrontation for the sake of a confrontation," he added. "I hope people (in the administration) will listen. We'll try it that way first."
Last month, Leahy asked Gonzales to produce a secret presidential order that apparently authorizes the use of secret CIA facilities overseas. Leahy also asked for a memo that once clarified interrogation techniques the agency could use against al-Qaida suspects detained in those facilities.
The CIA acknowledged the documents' existence -- though not their content -- last month in response to a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union. Leahy has not received them.
The memo was written by Jay Bybee, former head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel.
Leahy's staff refers to the document as the "second Bybee memo," because Bybee issued an initial memo in 2002 that sought to dilute the national definition of torture, setting the stage for the United States' use of tough interrogation techniques in connection with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The first Bybee memo, the views of which have been rescinded by the administration, argued: "Physical pain amounting to torture must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death."
Techniques resulting in injury short of that were legally acceptable, the memo reasoned.
On Wednesday, Leahy said he met with Gonzales two weeks ago to inform him he would be asked to testify before the committee soon after Leahy takes the gavel on Jan. 4. One Leahy aide said the hearing would be on general oversight, effectively giving senators an opening to ask questions on any topic.
"I told him he can expect an invitation to come up soon," Leahy said of Gonzales appearance.
Gonzales previous committee appearances have left Leahy frustrated. In February, Gonzales flatly refused to reveal details of the president's program authorizing the National Security Agency to wiretap domestic phones used for some foreign conversations.
"Our enemy is listening," Gonzales warned the senators. The next hearing might be different if Leahy is armed with supporting documents and the ability to swear-in administration officials -- an element absent from the Gonzales hearing in February, despite Democratic complaints.
"I will look again into this issue of wireless wiretapping. Nothing frightens me more," Leahy said Wednesday. "I'm not prepared to accept answers (of), 'I can't answer that.'"
But the biggest enticement for administration officials to speak candidly may not be subpoenas or secret documents, says Julian Zelizer, a political history professor at Boston University.
"The greater power (Leahy) has is to call these guys not only before the committee but the TV cameras. That's where the Senate has its power," Zelizer said.
Although administration officials have been stone-faced before the cameras before, showing confidence in the president's national security agenda, the devolving nature of the Iraq war has changed the tone of the nation, Zelizer said.
"The whole public discussion on Iraq has changed," he added. "A senate hearing right now could be very potent."
That's what Leahy is promising -- a tough approach that challenges the White House on a list of programs.
"Just like somebody with a drug problem, this election was an intervention," Leahy told the crowd at his alma mater, referring to the midterms last month that propelled Democrats into power in both chambers of Congress. "I have never seen a Congress so willfully derelict in its duties as during this administration."
He vowed to press for standard legal rights, known as habeas corpus, for detainees in U.S. custody, challenge the administration's "cavalier" use of data mining and investigate corporate war profiteering.
Leahy has a theme for his committee's agenda: "restoration, repair and renewal."
"We begin knowing that we have a duty to repair real damage done to our system of government over the last few years," he said.
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