Senate Intelligence Chairman Pat Roberts (R.-Kan.) wryly said last week he would like to help Intelligence Vice Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D.-W.Va.) recall the details of White House briefings they attended together at which the senators were told about the National Security Agency’s program to tap international calls involving parties within the United States with suspected links to terrorism.
“We’ve contacted the pharmaceutical companies and they have memory pills for seniors, and we’re trying to get a memory pill for those who attended the briefings because they’re having some amnesia and sort of a selective memory loss,” Roberts told me. “There was always time for questions, always time for any point of view, and Sen. Rockefeller was always in the end very supportive.”
On December 16, the New York Times broke the story that after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President Bush authorized the NSA to tap—without obtaining a court order—international calls that had some suspected link to al Qaeda. House and Senate leaders of both parties and the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate intelligence committees were repeatedly briefed on the program in private meetings with Vice President Cheney, Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, who was then-NSA director, and then-Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet.
But after the Times story broke, Rockefeller released a secret, hand-written letter he sent to Cheney in July 2003, in which he wrote: “Given the security restrictions associated with this information, and my inability to consult staff or counsel of my own, I feel unable to fully evaluate, much less endorse these activities.”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D.-Nev.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D.-Calif.), and House Intelligence Committee ranking Democratic member Jane Harman (Calif.), all of whom were briefed on the program, have joined Rockefeller in criticizing the program and are now calling for investigations. Pelosi claims she discussed her “strong concerns” during briefings sessions and in her own letter to the administration. She is now requesting that the letter be declassified.
So far, Rockefeller is the only Democrat briefed on the program to produce a record demonstrating he opposed the policy before the Times story broke.
But House Intelligence Committee Chairman Pete Hoekstra (R.-Mich.) has joined Roberts in challenging the sincerity of Rockefeller’s complaint.
I asked Hoekstra last week at a press conference what he would have done if he had been informed about a classified program that he felt was genuinely wrong. Hoekstra replied: “If I had felt a great deal of discomfort with this program, there is a lot more I would have done than just write one letter over a period of four years.”
Hoekstra listed actions Rockefeller could have taken. Rockefeller, he said, could have gone straight to the President with his concerns. “It’s been reported that my first briefing included the Vice President,” said Hoekstra. “If I felt uncomfortable, I could have gone directly to the Vice President, expressed my opinions there and demanded a meeting with the President. I think I would have gotten it.”
If he had had concerns, Hoekstra said, he would have gone to the House speaker, and asked for his help in going to the administration to address the concerns. Rockefeller could have taken his concerns to the Democratic leaders who were briefed.
Last, Hoekstra pointed out that Intelligence Committee members such as Rockefeller were in a position to rewrite intelligence-authorizing language. “We write the authorizing language each and every year,” he said. “The authorizing language is classified. We have a very capable staff. We could have come up with a creative way of writing the language that would have prohibited a program like this without many of our colleagues even knowing what we were talking about.”
Roberts made similar observations. “If Sen. Rockefeller truly had the concerns he claimed to have had in his two-and-a-half-year-old letter, he could have pursued a number of options to have those concerns addressed,” Roberts said in a statement. Among them, Roberts noted, was taking the issue up with the other members of Congress briefed on the program or pursuing a legislative change to stop it.
When I asked Roberts if anything prohibited briefed members from consulting each other, he said there was not. Roberts said, “In fact, it is my recollection that on many occasions Sen. Rockefeller expressed to the Vice President his vocal support for the program.” Roberts said he believed Rockefeller showed support for the program as recently as early December.