I find the list of briefings on the domestic wiretap program as instructive for what it tells us about the program itself (and Bush's dealings with Congress) as it is as proof that Gonzales is full of shit. In no particular order or structure, here are some thoughts:
Citizens and Voters Need Not Know
This document was declassified on May 17, 2006, before the midterm elections.
But this is the first we're hearing of it. I rather think that John Laesch would have liked to be able to tell voters that Denny Hastert had approved warrantless wiretapping of American citizens three times. I'm sure that Marcy Winograd would have liked to be able to tell voters that Jane Harman had signed off on wireless wiretapping on eight separate occasions. Why didn't we get this list earlier? (Nevermind ... I think I know the answer to that.)
See cboldt for this correction. This list has been available...
They started having briefings on the Hill after Risen and Lichtblau revealed the program on December 16, 200
65. Perhaps that's because (as Gonzales likes to repeat endlessly) Bush had confirmed the program and it no longer had to be secreted away inside the situation room.
They've conducted three briefings for leaders of defense appropriations subcommittees:
- December 4, 2001, for Daniel Inouye (then-Chair of Senate Appropriations, Defense Subcommittee) and Ted Stevens (Ranking Member of the same subcommittee)
- February 28, 2006, for Bill Young (then-Chair of House Appropriations, Defense Subcommittee) and John Murtha (Ranking Member of the same subcommittee)
- May 11, 2006 for Young and Murtha again
I'm really curious about these briefings. How detailed were they (a particularly pertinent question since Murtha, Young, and Stevens are among the most corrupt members of Congress)? Why did the Senate get briefed once, close to the inception of the program, and the House get briefed almost five years later, when it was under fire (and when, because of Duke Cunningham, the Appropriations Defense Subcommittee was itself under fire)? I assume the program is funded out of some kind of black budget. So why brief the Appropriations leaders at all? Was there some kind of expenditure that was public, that needed approval?
For the first two years of the program, the Intelligence Committee leaders were briefed fairly regularly, at least every 6 months. (It was just the Intell leaders at that point, and not the party leaders, because BushCo went on a snit after Richard Shelby leaked the news that the NSA had had an intercept from Al Qaeda before 9/11, and cut back who it briefed even more than normal; finally, though, the leaders rebelled and they began to get briefed on the big secrets too.) And they seemed to be very diligent to make sure that everyone got equal briefing. For example, when Bob Graham missed the March 5, 2002 briefing, he got his own briefing not long thereafter.
The March 10 Meeting
But then, there was an unusually long gap between briefings, from July 17, 2003 to March 10, 2004, a gap of eight months rather than six. If they had followed the previous pattern, they would have done a briefing in January, 2004.
Note, this was right during the period when Jim Comey, Jack Goldsmith, and others, were recognizing that the program was illegal. So they didn't brief Congress on the program when they discovered it was illegal, but rather let it go for two more months, until the day Comey refused to certify its legality, before they bothered to convene. Effectively, rather than warning Congress, they created a crisis, presumably creating more pressure on Congress to approve it.
Effectively, the March 10 meeting was Tom Dashcle's only briefing on the program. Perhaps that's why he forgets the meeting? Wouldn't you think he'd remember it all the more?
Also note, Tom DeLay got his very own personal briefing on March 11, the day the program operated with no legal sanction. Oh to be a fly on the wall at that meeting...
Things get a little sketchy after that. Congress did not receive a briefing after the crisis, so they presumably didn't learn that the program operated illegally (well, maybe DeLay did, but he's kind of fond of illegal activities). Just Pete Hoekstra got a briefing on September 24, 2004, and he presumably got that solely because he had just taken over as Chair of HPSCI after Porter Goss became DCI the day before. Harry Reid had to wait much longer--two months--before he was briefed on the program after becoming Minority Leader in the Senate in 2006. Effectively, though, the program went almost a full year (March 10, 2004 until February 3, 2005) before Congress was briefed on the program that had been found to be operating illegally.
And then, there's a briefing missing from this list. We know, after all, that Cheney briefed members of Congress on December 16, 2005, after Risen and Lichtblau first published news of the program.
On Friday afternoon, after the report in The New York Times and the fallout it engendered, Vice President Dick Cheney made a hurried trip to the Capitol to defend the domestic spying program against charges that it might be illegal, while Mr. Bush said he ''would do everything in my power to protect the country, within the law,'' from another terrorist attack.
Officials who were briefed on Mr. Cheney's closed-door meetings with House and Senate leaders on Friday declined to discuss them in detail because they took place in a classified setting. But they said Mr. Cheney, whose office helped lead the creation of the eavesdropping program, offered a vigorous defense of its legality and usefulness.
The lawmakers Mr. Cheney met with, Democrats and Republicans, had been briefed on the program previously, and the vice president focused less on explaining the program than on discussing the impact of the disclosure, one official said.
But this briefing doesn't show up on this list at all. Does this mean Cheney briefings don't show on this list? Were there other briefings that Cheney conducted prior to this program?
And then things get interesting. Recall that after the revelation of the program, there was a lot of stink in Congress about it. Which is why I find it interesting that just about every briefing since that time has had an imbalance toward one party or the other (obviously, usually toward the Republicans). So, for example, the Republican half of the Gang of Eight get a briefing on January 11, 2006, with Jay Rockefeller as the lone Democrat. Then the Democrats get their briefing, but Pat Roberts (who also attended the January 11 meeting) attends as the lone Republican.
In February, at a time when there were some just Pat Roberts (by himself) and Denny Hastert and Pete Hoekstra get briefings.In the same time period, SJC is trying to exercise some oversight of this program, with a February 6 Gonzales briefing to SJC, and a February 17 White House refusal to allow Comey and Goldsmith to testify. Were these briefings, then, about how to side-step Congressional oversight?
Then we get the new-fangled TSP subcommittee in the SSCI and the TSP group in HSPCI (I wonder if those Republican-only February briefings also strategized how to set up oversight subcommittees for the program that wouldn't in any way endanger the program). One thing about the timing of these subcommittee meetings: the first one happens on the same day--March 9, 2006--that Bush signs the PATRIOT reauthorization, which effectively closes the period of heightened partisan tension surrounding Bush's illegal programs. So the subcommittees didn't start getting briefings, effectively, until it was too late.
The meetings these subcommittees have seem to have some partisan imbalances to them. The March 9, 2006 meeting in SSCI (attended by Pat Roberts, Jay Rockefeller, Orrin Hatch, Mike DeWine, DiFi, Carl Levin, and Kit Bond) and the March 29, 2006 meeting in HPSCI (with 6 Republicans and 5 Democrats) are balanced as they should be, given that Republicans control Congress. But when Kit Bond gets a follow-up briefing, he gets it alone. When DiFi gets one, Roberts and Hatch attend as well. Then Mike DeWine and Carl Levin both have their own follow-up. Likewise, there's the April 7, 2006 briefing attended by five Republicans and Rush Holt, followed by an April 28 briefing attended by two Democrats and Heather Wilson. This partisan imbalance may be nothing more than a reflection of varying schedules in Congress. But given how much Gonzales likes to flout consensus, I wonder if they don't achieve consensus by stacking their deck.
Finally, there's the timing of this document itself. Nancy Pelosi requested information on the briefings on May 2, 2006. This may have been a simple request to understand the extent of briefing on this program. Then again, given the way the briefings were restricted to Republicans that February, just at the time when Congress was trying to exercise oversight of the program, she may have smelled a rat. She's pretty good, our Nancy, at sniffing out rats, you know.