When the history books pillory the Republicans for their assault on civil liberties in the post-9/11 era, they should put a little asterisk next to "Republicans"--in memory of Democrat Jay Rockefeller.
In his role first as ranking member and now as chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, Rockefeller has been run over, bypassed, steamrolled and otherwise hoodwinked by the White House on so many occasions that he's become something of a laughingstock among civil libertarians--at least among the more charitable of them. Whether he was antagonistic to civil liberties or simply ineffectual will be another question for the historians.
The latest surrender has come on the FISA bill, where the Senate version
(.pdf) that emerged from a closed hearing last night included, to no one's surprise, retroactive immunity for the telecommunications companies who cooperated with the President's warrantless surveillance program. (In the years before the program was revealed by The New York Times
, Rockefeller's opposition to it consisted of fretting to the Vice President in a hand-written letter
But, despite the predicted inclusion of telecom immunity, the political theater this week surrounding that provision is worth a closer look, because the White House, with Rockefeller's help, pulled off quite the bait and switch.
On Tuesday, the White House turned over
piles of documents to Rockefeller about the warrantless surveillance program. Like the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, his committee had demanded the documents for months (although it never took the step of subpoenaing them), but the White House had stonewalled. The release of the documents was timed as part of the White House's full-court press, in cooperation with the telecom lobbyists, to get a Senate version of the FISA bill through with a telecom immunity provision.
Rockefeller chortled over his apparent success in getting the White House to release the long-sought documents, The Politico reported
"I am hoarse from screaming," Rockefeller joked about his faceoff with the White House over the highly classified program. "But I scream well."
By some accounts, the White House relinquished "millions of pages of documents," which intel committee staffers began reviewing Tuesday at a secure undisclosed location. Rockefeller warned that the mark-up of the bill, scheduled for Thursday, could be delayed as staff analyzed the new information. Early reports from Democrats on the committee were not encouraging. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who sits on both the intelligence and judiciary committees (which had actually subpoenaed the documents from the White House but was not given them) told the Post
that one of her staffers who reviewed the new documents "wasn't impressed" by what was produced.
Yet, with the White House document dump as cover, the mark-up went off as scheduled yesterday, and the Senate version of the bill emerged last night, telecom immunity intact. Did Rockefeller's crack staff get through the "millions of pages" in three days? Did the White House really produce what was requested or bury its non-compliance in a blizzard of useless documents and duplicates, as it did repeatedly with document dumps on the U.S. attorneys scandal?
In a press conference with Sen. Kit Bond (R-MO) following the mark-up, Rockefeller said that nothing he has seen so far
in the portion of the secret White House documents he has reviewed makes him believe the program was illegal. That's reassuring. As Sen, Ron Wyden (D-Or), who voted against the bill in committee, put it, "If this program is so legal why does there have to be this special legal protection?" (Although unimpressed by the White House document production, Feinstein voted for the bill in committee.)
If the predicate for senators to approve telecom immunity is knowing what conduct they are being asked to immunize, which sounds reasonable enough, can senators--even members of the intel committee--say today that they know with any precision what the telecoms were doing on behalf and at the insistence of the Bush Administration? I seriously doubt it.
Rockefeller's sympathy for the telecom companies--and his position at the crux of the legislative battle--is reflected in his campaign contributions from telecom employees, which have spiked
in recent months. No wonder then that the White House dumped its documents on Rockefeller's committee rather than the Judiciary Committee. It was all part of setting the stage for getting what the White House knew it could get from Rockefeller anyway.