WASHINGTON -- Partisan animosity that has brought operations of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to a standstill reached new depths on the early evening of Nov. 5. The committee's Democratic vice chairman, Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, went on Lou Dobbs's CNN program to say flatly he had not ordered the staff memorandum outlining a confrontational election-year strategy on Iraq.
The Republican chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, was startled. He informed his staff that Rockefeller had told him that he personally ordered aides to give him "options" -- an order that produced the now infamous memo. To the plainspoken ex-Marine from Dodge City, trust had been breached. His committee will remain dormant, conducting no hearings, until some Democrat on the committee -- preferably Rockefeller -- disavows the memo's contents. That is not about to happen.
Neither Pat Roberts nor Jay Rockefeller is a natural partisan brawler, and each would prefer amiable cooperation in overseeing the nation's intelligence agencies. But both are caught in what Whittaker Chambers saw as the trap of history. Rockefeller is pressured by a Senate Democratic caucus that, facing slim chances of regaining majority status any time soon, insists on undermining President Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq. Roberts is unable to follow his normal inclinations to sit down and make peace.
The memo setting forth a political strategy for Intelligence Committee Democrats cannot be written off, as Democratic senators try to do, as the work of one possibly errant staffer. It represents dominant political thinking inside the committee by Michigan's Sen. Carl Levin, one of the smartest, toughest and more partisan members of the U.S. Senate. The Intelligence Committee is no longer a non-partisan island in a bitterly partisan legislative ocean.
Roberts informed non-partisan committee staffers that Rockefeller had informed him he had requested "options." The memo's only option actually was a plan for Democrats to "castigate" their Republican colleagues and "pull the trigger" on a 2004 independent investigation of politicized intelligence.
That is why Roberts was so disturbed by Rockefeller's Nov. 5 interview. Lou Dobbs: "Did you order the drafting of this memo?" Rockefeller: "No, I didn't." Dobbs: "Do you know who did?" Rockefeller: "No, I mean it wasn't ordered." To Roberts, that effective repudiation by his Democratic colleague of their private conversation ended the Intelligence Committee's tenure as a politics-free haven.