Friday, November 10, 2006

Bush Administration's Unsupervised Festivities Coming To An End

Oversight -- dead these last six years -- will feature prominently in the agenda of the Democratic-controlled Congress.

The Democrats' sweep of the House and the Senate gives the party powerful tools for probing certain controversies of the Bush administration's years in office, from its use of faulty prewar intelligence on Iraq to its effort to rebuild New Orleans.

With President Bush retaining his veto pen, the Democratic majorities may have a difficult time passing laws, especially in areas like health care and Social Security. But some Democrats in both the House and the Senate already are signaling a willingness to conduct tough oversight of the Bush administration's policies and to reopen lingering controversies -- particularly over pre-Iraq intelligence -- the Republican-led Congress largely ignored.

In the Senate, the likely new Intelligence Committee chairman, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, says he will complete an investigation into the White House's case for invading Iraq that Republicans were accused of stalling. Michigan Sen. Carl Levin is in line to take over the most powerful congressional oversight body, the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which routinely sends staffers to Iraq and other overseas countries. Mr. Levin, a critic of the Iraq war, has previously promised to conduct tougher oversight of the administration's use of no-bid contracting in Iraq, where the $21.8 billion U.S.-led rebuilding effort is winding down without having restored prewar levels of water or electricity.

In the House, Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, expected to take over the House Committee on Homeland Security, is promising to haul Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff before the panel to face questions on issues ranging from the no-bid contracts awarded after Hurricane Katrina to the number of vacancies in the department's senior management.

"The secretary only came before our committee two times this entire year, and that is not enough," Mr. Thompson said. "He cannot be a stranger before the Homeland Security Committee. He is going to have to be fully engaged, and I am going to demand that of him."

Mr. Thompson is likely to be one of the largest burrs in the side of the Bush administration, as is California Rep. Henry Waxman, who will run the House Government Reform Committee. Mr. Waxman, an unrelenting critic of the White House, said he will boost oversight of the Bush administration and broad swaths of corporate America, with a particular focus on prescription-drug prices, oil-company profits and Halliburton Co.'s contracting work in Iraq.

The Democrats' choices about how to use their expanded oversight powers, which enable them to subpoena information, call hearings and compel witnesses to appear, will shape the next two years in Washington.

But Democrats will face internal divisions as they decide where to focus their investigative muscle. Liberal Democrats such as the membership of the activist organization want the party to investigate the administration's case for the Iraq war and instances of possible corporate misconduct. By contrast, centrist and conservative Democrats like New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and many of the newly elected lawmakers from Southern and Western states argue the party should avoid taking too harsh a stance against big business or the Bush administration.

Democrats already are signaling they will proceed cautiously on Iraq. A spokeswoman says Mr. Rockefeller "will press to complete the remaining sections of the committee's Iraq review," but noted the lawmaker also was aware the panel "has other pressing issues that must be a priority going forward."

The reports concern one of the most controversial aspects of the Bush administration's years in power, its prewar case that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and an active nuclear-weapons program.

When no weapons were found, the outgoing chairman of the Senate intelligence panel, Kansas Republican Pat Roberts, agreed in 2004 to conduct a five-part study of prewar intelligence on Iraq.

Two parts of the study were made public in September, including one that criticized Bush administration efforts to link Saddam Hussein to al Qaeda. But the most politically sensitive sections of the reports, say officials involved in them, have yet to be completed.

One will contrast prewar statements made by Mr. Bush and other senior administration officials about Iraq's military and terrorist capabilities with the underlying intelligence available at the time. Another looks into the work of Douglas Feith's office; at the time, Mr. Feith was a senior political appointee to the Pentagon, and his office promoted intelligence linking Iraq to al Qaeda.

Mr. Rockefeller's decision about how fast to proceed with the Iraq investigations will be watched by his fellow Democrats, many of whom believe the Bush administration willfully misled Congress and the American people in the run-up to the war. Mr. Rockefeller also will face intraparty pressure to conduct inquires into the Central Intelligence Agency's secret-prison programs for al Qaeda suspects and the White House's efforts to monitor telephone calls without seeking warrants. An aide to Mr. Rockefeller said those "are two areas that are ripe for aggressive oversight."

In the House, Democrats like Mr. Thompson will oversee domestic security for the first time since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Party officials said the Democrats are going to set the agenda on issues ranging from immigration enforcement to improved support for local responders. But their intentions to close the gaps in the nation's defenses are almost certain to go hand in hand with their desire to use their new power to bash the administration's security failures.

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