WASHINGTON -- Currently circulating in the Senate cloakrooms is word that Sen. Pat Roberts, Republican chairman of the Intelligence Committee, brought up with Dick Cheney the administration's need to disclose to Congress sensitive security information. "There is no upside for us in that," the vice president is reputed to have replied. Yet, in Senate hearings Monday, Alberto Gonzales cautiously suggested a desire for cooperation with Congress.
At the same time, the Bush administration is going directly to the public with its war message. Raul Damas, associate director of political affairs at the White House, has been on the phone directly to Republican county chairmen to arrange local speeches by active duty military personnel to talk about their experiences in Iraq. To some Republican members, this unusual venture connotes a desire to go directly to the people to sell the president's position without having to deal with members of Congress.
To Republicans on Capitol Hill, a conflict appears to be underway within the administration. The dominant hard line against sharing information with Congress on electronic surveillance and other questions is pressed by Cheney, often represented by his new chief of staff and former general counsel, David S. Addington. Now, it appears that Gonzales, while refusing to say much Monday when he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, was putting out an invitation for collaboration by Congress.
The pending issue is how much President Bush needs to reveal to Congress about covert telephone surveillance of conversations by U.S. citizens with suspected terrorists overseas. But the debate goes deeper. American presidents in wartime have been reluctant to share information with Congress, and this fits George W. Bush's inclinations. Democrats, delighted to make a midterm election issue of "eavesdropping," seize on the administration's refusal to share information with the legislative branch.
Roberts, a square shooter from Dodge City, Kan., over the years usually has answered my questions. When I asked him about the vice president's "no upside" comments to him, however, he did not deny his saying it but told me: "I'm not going to comment about Cheney." It is no wonder that Roberts, who is close to Cheney, was not inclined to discuss or dispute his comments. Having spent more than 40 years on Capitol Hill, as first a staffer and then a member in both Houses of Congress, Roberts does not easily acquiesce to executive superiority.