Back in July, Democrats asked the Justice Department for internal documents relating to a trio of controversial prosecutions -- cases where suspicions were high of political interference. They were the prosecution of Georgia Thompson in Wisconsin, former Gov. Don Siegelman (D-AL), and Dr. Cyril Wecht, a Democratic coroner in Pennsylvania.
Last week, the Justice Department replied by providing documents -- most of them already public case filings (although there was one telling email). The Department did not turn over documents that Congress was really after, internal memoranda discussing the cases. Such "deliberative" material, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski wrote in a letter, could not be turned over, because it would have a chilling effect on "candid internal deliberations." In a letter today, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) and other members called that response "unacceptable" and asked to work out some arrangement to view the documents (see below).
Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) didn't have much success in getting Gen. Petraeus to go into more detail about how he's derived his statistics for civilian casualties and sectarian attacks. Petraeus reminded Smith -- who misspoke by claiming Petraeus didn't present his total-casualty stats -- that he's presented Congress with the statistics that he has. But notice that Petraeus doesn't answer Smith's question about how Shiite-on-Shiite attacks or other, murkier "ethno-sectarian violence" (to use the general's phrase) gets classified.
Rep Vic Snyder (D-AK) took a look at Gen. Petraeus' plan for drawing down troops and had a question: how long will we ultimately be in Iraq? Petraeus didn't answer.
Notice that over some unspecified period of time, Petraeus envisions drawing down to five U.S. brigades, for strategic and operational "overwatch" purposes, which would mean between 20,000 and 25,000 troops remaining in the country. In fairness, this is a question for President Bush -- more realistically, his successor -- but getting an answer is still critical.
Both Gen. Petraeus and Amb. Crocker endorsed the White House's upcoming benchmark report -- the one that the White House will want to call the Petraeus Report. "I don't think that there is any substantive change in that report, according to the draft I saw the other day, nothing substantive whatsoever that was different in that report," Petraeus said. Crocker assented.
Here's a surprise: Gen. Petraeus told Rep. Gene Taylor (D-MS) that his command and the Maliki government have a standing committee to work out timetables for transferring control of Iraqi provinces to the Iraqis. Those timetables are apparently classified, but Petraeus said he'd get them to the House Armed Services Committee.
It would be interesting to know how the timetable for turning over Iraqi provinces corresponds to Gen. Petraeus' cautious recommendations on troop withdrawals. He said that the timetables can slip, owing to circumstances -- Diyala will take longer, owing to the infusion of insurgents to Baquba since the surge; Anbar will be turned over in January 2008 -- which is fair enough.
But does Petraeus envision a departure of forces from a province back to the U.S., or a reassignment of forces to a different one? Or will U.S. forces simply remain in some provinces in support roles? After all, at some point, all 18 provinces will be turned over. What will happen to U.S. forces then? Or will certain provinces -- say, Baghdad, which is its own province -- not be turned over in any foreseeable time frame?
Also, if Petraeus can say openly that Anbar can be handed over in January 2008, why should the rest of the timetables be classified?
As if he read this post, Gen. Petraeus offered his definition of sectarian violence for his tabulations: "acts taken by individual by one ethno-sectarian grouping against another." He added that "it's not that complicated": if "al-Qaeda bombs a Shiite area," it's sectarian violence. Fair enough, but it raises the question: how do you know when a bombing in a certain area is perpetrated by al-Qaeda? Andrew Tilghman documents in the Washington Monthly how MNF-I over-attributes violence in Iraq to al-Qaeda.
One thing that Petraeus specifically denied: a senior intelligence official's claim to the Washington Post that MNF-I tabulates sectarian killings by whether a bullet enters the head through the back or the front.
While Gen. Petraeus repeatedly cited the Sunni tribal turn against al-Qaeda as the most significant development in Iraq over the last year, he balks at the suggestion that his command is providing them with guns. "We have never given weapons to tribals," he said. "What we have done is applaud when they ask if they can point their guns at al-Qaeda."
But that's a precious distinction. As the New York Timesreported yesterday:
Under the project, financed by the American military, the local tribes are paid $10 a day per man to provide security in their areas.
Despite protestations from United States commanders that they are not arming those âvolunteers,â local American officers confirm that the sheiks can spend the contract money as they wish, diverting money from wages to buy weapons, radios or vehicles if they choose.
Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.) wasn't buying Amb. Crocker's portrait of sotto voce reconciliation efforts. Crocker, however, decided to double down, saying that the "Sunnis are now linking to the federal government by being part of the police force."
Unfortunately, the Shiite government believes, and not without reason, that the Sunni infusion into the local police and Iraqi Army will ultimately lead to a coup. Witness one Sunni recently tellingThe New York Times that "If we get into the Iraqi police we can move to Mahmudiya and Yusufiya and south Baghdad to free them and kill all the militias.â
To Crocker, those provincial moves against al-Qaeda "could be the seeds of reconciliation."
At several points during his testimony, Crocker has stated that "fundamental questions" over what sort of country Iraq will be is hindering reconciliation, while simultaneously hinting that such reconciliation is already occurring in miniature. Both statements can't be true at once.
Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA) asked Gen. Petraeus why his withdrawal plan is so circumscribed when other military officials -- including the Central Command chief, Admiral William Fallon -- believe a more rapid draw-down is possible and responsible, as The Washington Post reported this weekend. "A senior civilian official" told the Post that calling relations between Fallon and Petraeus "bad" would be "the understatement of the century."
During the hearing, however, Petraeus called his plan his "best professional military judgment," and stated that both Admiral Fallon "fully supports" his recommendations, "as do the Joint Chiefs of Staff."
A few minutes later, Petraeus stated that he believes Fallon is the victim of mistaken press accounts. Supposedly there was a Central Command assessment taking a much longer view of the Iraq situation, and not in conflict with Petraeus' own. Fallon, he said, agrees with Petraeus' view.
And you thought the surge hadn't yielded tangible political gains. According to Amb. Crocker, the surge has "changed the dynamic" politically "for the better," as it has given Iraqis the "time and space to reflect on the kind of country they want." Significantly, Crocker is not conceding that reconciliation is failing, but attempting to change the terms of the debate.