Disinvited Witness

Posted: Apr 29, 2008 10:33 AM
Disinvited Witness

What happened to Robert F. Turner last week unfortunately happens all too often on Capitol Hill, although one might argue the University of Virginia professor — more than most witnesses called to testify before Congress — was inconvenienced tremendously by his experience.

We'll allow Mr. Turner to speak for himself, but for background he was invited by Caleb Rossiter of the House Foreign Affairs' subcommittee on international organizations, human rights and oversight to testify at a hearing Thursday on war powers in the 21st century. Indeed, his name remained on the witness list that was still posted yesterday by the committee.

A former acting assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration and co-founder and associate director of the UVa. Center for National Security Law, the professor has written two books on the War Powers Resolution and testified on the issue many times over the decades before various congressional committees.

"Since I had worked on war-powers issues in the Pentagon, the White House and Department of State ... I agreed to take part — knowing that it would require me to reschedule one class and change my travel plans for a lecture tour in California in order to fly back to Washington in time for the April 24 hearing," Mr. Turner tells this column.

At which point, Mr. Rossiter "confirmed the invitation, e-mailed me an official letter of invitation signed by the committee chairman, and sent me some material," he says. "Thinking that these issues were important, I canceled virtually all of my discretionary activities (including telling my 15-year-old son we could not attend the UVa.-Dartmouth lacrosse game for which we already had tickets) and worked into the early hours of the morning, night after night, writing at my computer. Because of my commitments to lecture in California, I did all of the final writing in hotel rooms."

As requested, the professor last Tuesday sent Mr. Rossiter his testimony "and he called me and asked me to make several changes ... I finally finished the revisions to my prepared statement at 4 a.m. (California time) on Wednesday, April 23," he says, adding it was more than 25,000 words and contained more than 100 footnotes to primary sources (e.g., the papers of Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, John Locke, etc.) — "a rather detailed effort to fully discuss the issue and be responsive to a request from Congress.

"Three hours and 20 minutes later, at 7:20 a.m. California time, my cell phone rang, and it was Mr. Rossiter. He told me he didn't know if I would consider it good news or bad news, but that he had shown my statement to the chairman — Rep. Bill Delahunt [Massachusetts Democrat] — and the chairman had explained that the Republican minority had insisted at the last minute on including a 'new' witness (who is an old friend of mine).

"In order to 'accommodate the minority,' the chairman was forced to trim the witness list and had decided to 'disinvite' me to testify," he says. "Just out of curiosity, I telephoned and e-mailed the staff of the ranking Republican ... and was assured that he had nothing to do with my invitation (I had been selected by the Democratic majority, which had always been my understanding), and he added that the 'new' witness had been scheduled for weeks to be the one witness allowed for the minority ...

"Although I've been around Washington long enough not to be shocked, I don't much like to be lied to by a representative of the people. I also don't like it when representatives of the people use their power to censor important ideas with which they personally may disagree. Chairman Delahunt had no duty to invite me to testify, but he did — and in an effort to be fully responsive I disrupted an already very busy life and spent dozens of hours working late into the night to try to explain the views he had sought for his hearing and to document them."

Mr. Turner says the "bottom line" of his testimony was apparently not what Mr. Delahunt anticipated: "I showed how congressional 'lawbreaking' (seizing powers the Founding Fathers explained were vested exclusively in the president) had done serious harm to our country, including ... making it easier for Osama bin Laden to succeed on 9/11.

"I called the War Powers Resolution a 'hoax' on the American people," he says.

Reached yesterday, Mr. Rossiter, who is counselor to Mr. Delahunt, denied the invitation was rescinded for political reasons.

"Absolutely deny," he says. "There is no animus from the congressman ... no reflection on the testimony. We need strong arguments on both sides."

He added that the chairman ordered Mr. Turner's prepared testimony be entered into the "official transcript" of the hearing.

"Things get complicated," Mr. Rossiter stressed. "I've been bounced off talk shows. It hurts."

Said the professor: "Unfortunately, it's more sad than amusing. If the stakes were not so serious, I'd prefer to make jokes about it."