Inform Congress?

Currently circulating in the Senate cloakrooms is word that Sen. Pat Roberts, Republican chairman of the Intelligence Committee, brought up with Dick Cheney the administration’s need to disclose to Congress sensitive security information. "There is no upside for us in that," the vice president is reputed to have replied. Yet, in Senate hearings Monday, Alberto Gonzales cautiously suggested a desire for cooperation with Congress.

At the same time, the Bush administration is going directly to the public with its war message. Raul Damas, associate director of political affairs at the White House, has been on the phone directly to Republican county chairmen to arrange local speeches by active duty military personnel to talk about their experiences in Iraq. To some Republican members, this unusual venture connotes a desire to go directly to the people to sell the president’s position without having to deal with members of Congress.

To Republicans on Capitol Hill, a conflict appears to be underway within the administration. The dominant hard line against sharing information with Congress on electronic surveillance and other questions is pressed by Cheney, often represented by his new chief of staff and former general counsel, David S. Addington. Now, it appears that Gonzales, while refusing to say much Monday when he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, was putting out an invitation for collaboration by Congress.

The pending issue is how much President Bush needs to reveal to Congress about covert telephone surveillance of conversations by U.S. citizens with suspected terrorists overseas. But the debate goes deeper. American presidents in wartime have been reluctant to share information with Congress, and this fits George W. Bush’s inclinations. Democrats, delighted to make a midterm election issue of "eavesdropping," seize on the administration’s refusal to share information with the legislative branch.

Roberts, a square shooter from Dodge City, Kan., over the years usually has answered my questions. When I asked him about the vice president’s "no upside" comments to him, however, he did not deny his saying it but told me: "I’m not going to comment about Cheney." It is no wonder that Roberts, who is close to Cheney, was not inclined to discuss or dispute his comments. Having spent more than 40 years on Capitol Hill, as first a staffer and then a member in both Houses of Congress, Roberts does not easily acquiesce to executive superiority.

But in heading the Intelligence Committee, Roberts finds himself in a difficult position. He has complained to other committee members that he finds it hard to cope with his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Jay Rockefeller. Rockefeller in private conversations with Roberts tends to take a measured bipartisan approach in dealing with presidential authority to eavesdrop on suspected terrorists. But publicly, the committee’s top Democrat assumes a confrontational position against Roberts.

The problem for Roberts is that the Democratic reins on the Intelligence Committee are held not by Rockefeller but by two of the most partisan members of the Senate: Carl Levin and Minority Whip Richard Durbin. Never known as a political battler, Roberts showed his frustration with the Democrats recently by publicly taking issue with Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean’s comparison of George W. Bush to Richard Nixon on the surveillance issue.

The phone calls to individual county chairmen by White House aide Damas is interpreted by some Capitol Hill Republicans as continuing the administration’s policy of non-cooperation. Damas, who until last year was a Republican National Committee staffer, did not inform governors, state chairmen or members of Congress that he was sending on-duty soldiers into their states to speak in their districts. Damas did not return my telephone call for comment.

On the surface, Monday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing seemed more of the same. Gonzales, not the most astute witness for the administration, unequivocally defended the eavesdropping program. Democrats responded with their familiar accusation of civil liberties abused. But with a careful listening, the attorney general did come over as conciliatory by at least offering to discuss the question with senators. Even Teddy Kennedy seemed relatively civil in being open to cooperation. The question is whether the president will decide that informing Congress really has an upside for him.