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.
Actually, storm clouds appeared on the horizon during the 2001-2002 interregnum of a Democratic majority when Sen. Bob Graham of Florida became chairman. He proposed that the Intelligence Committee staff for the first time be divided evenly, into majority and minority staffs (just as other Senate committees are). He failed. Otherwise, however, he was given a free hand by his Republican vice chairman, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama. Amid the turmoil following 2001 terrorist attacks, the Intelligence Committee was calm.
After Republicans regained Senate control in the 2002 elections and term limits imposed new leadership on the Intelligence Committee, Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle insisted on an end to non-partisanship. As the new vice chairman, Rockefeller followed the party line by demanding half the staff, which was the real cause for delayed reorganization of the Senate under GOP leadership.
On a personal basis, Roberts gets along well with Rockefeller (and bonded with him on a trip to Iraq earlier in the year). He likes the multi-millionaire scion of the famous Republican family, describing Rockefeller's high-flown pronouncements as "ethereal." But their relationship now is strained to the breaking point.
The partisan tone among the committee's Democrats has been sounded by Levin and his lieutenant, Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois. Levin set the line on Fox News Sunday Nov. 9: "Did the administration, knowing what they knew, with daily briefings, exaggerate the intelligence (about Iraq)? The chairman of this committee and the Republicans refuse to look at the administration's use of exaggeration of intelligence."
The point Levin wants to pursue is that intelligence professionals were pressured by Bush officials to distort their findings. The committee's non-partisan staff has come up with no such information and has had no such complaints made from whistle-blowers in the intelligence community. Democratic demands to leap over the staff produced the memorandum which has laid waste the Senate Intelligence Committee.