In February 2004, the Senate Select Intelligence Committee (SSCI) announced that it had unanimously agreed to expand its investigation of prewar Iraq intelligence from focus on intelligence community blunders and into the more controversial area of “whether intelligence was exaggerated or misused” by U.S. government officials. The committee's ranking Democrat, Jay Rockefeller, struck the agreement with Chairman Pat Roberts -- provided, Roberts insisted, that the probe into policy-makers' activities wait until after the presidential election.
It's now more than a year later, and Rockefeller is still waiting -- the Phase II report has yet to appear. What happened? And why isn't Rockefeller making more of a fuss?
Republican committee staffers don't deny that Roberts lacks enthusiasm for Phase II. But they insist that he hasn't acted to kill the investigation, and that the last interviews needed to complete it are being wrapped up. Ultimately, they say, it will be up to the committee's members to vote on whether or not to release a report.
“The investigation is ongoing,” one committee staffer says. “It is sort of in the ending stage. Every once in awhile, a little campaign gets going that it's being buried or covered up. That doesn't reflect reality. [Roberts] is not ambiguous. He thinks it's a monumental waste of our time, but we're doing it.”
Democratic staffers confirm that after a long stall, the investigation is again limping forward. “I'm cautiously optimistic that we're actually -- finally -- going to wrap it up,” Wendy Morigi, spokeswoman for Rockefeller, e-mailed the Prospect. “Frankly, I think they've felt significant public pressure to finish it ... . Now the trick is going to be to make sure that we have a public report that is an honest, fair, and accurate picture of what happened. And that is where we're likely to find another struggle.”
Through all the delays, Rockefeller hasn't exactly been Mr. Aggressive in pushing Roberts to abide by his promise for swift action. There are several reasons why. The most obvious is simple math: The Republicans have more votes on the committee than the Democrats. “In fairness, if you follow the committee rules and procedures, which [Rockefeller] is trying to do, he has been slam-dunked by the Republicans,” one source says. “And they have the votes.”
A second problem for Rockefeller: An internal staff memo urging him to call for an independent investigation of the administration's use of Iraq intelligence was leaked to FOX News' Sean Hannity in November 2003. The resulting mini-furor that erupted in the right-wing media has contributed to Rockefeller's reluctance to act.
But the main reason he has been inhibited is that previous public comments he made apparently caused the Pentagon to abruptly stop cooperating with the investigation. At the July 2004 press conference occasioned by the release of the Phase I report, Rockefeller asserted that certain activities of members of the office of then–Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, including a secret Rome meeting with the Iranian arms dealer Manucher Ghorbanifar, might have been “unlawful.” At that point, Feith's office simply stopped cooperating with the investigation, and Roberts hasn't compelled Feith or his staff to comply. “[The Defense Department] got very skittish about volunteering as they had been up to that point,” an SSCI staffer told the Prospect. “They got all lawyered up. Roberts' position, and [the Defense Department's], has been either ‘show us what you're talking about' or ‘withdraw the statement and we'll continue our cooperation with you.' Rockefeller wouldn't do either.”
But committee staff sources say that before the cooperation ceased, the committee had received from Feith's office internal memos suggesting that the office may indeed have been conducting unlawful activities. In particular, Democratic staffers are interested in a secret December 2001 meeting of two Feith deputies, Larry Franklin and Harold Rhode, with Ghorbanifar in Rome. The meeting also included members of a foreign intelligence service (Italy's SISMI). The catch is that it wasn't reported in advance to the intelligence committee or the CIA, in possible violation of Section 502 of the National Security Act, which says that anyone conducting intelligence activities must inform the committee and the agency.
Among the documents in the committee's possession, the Prospect has learned, is a cable the CIA station chief in Rome sent to Langley expressing concern that members of Feith's office were involved in an unauthorized covert action. The committee also has Franklin's Rome report, which, according to sources, revealed that the meeting included the discussion of possibilities for engaging a network of Ghorbanifar associates to pursue action against Tehran. (Franklin pled guilty in October to charges stemming from a separate FBI investigation. Feith left the Pentagon for the private sector over the summer.)
“[Rockefeller] made an offhand comment at a press conference, which was totally accurate,” a source close to the investigation told the Prospect. “Some of these guys may have crossed the lines into illegalities. Can you imagine if during Iran-Contra the executive branch had said, ‘We're not going to provide you any more information because one of your members suggested that one of our members may have acted illegally'? In those days, neither Republicans nor Democrats would have stood for that for one minute.”
But that was then. Today, committee Republicans view their mission as being not oversight but cover-up. Indeed, one source told the Prospect that Roberts has worked closely behind the scenes with Vice President Dick Cheney's office in crafting the language defining and limiting the investigation's terms -- even though the committee is supposed to be investigating and providing oversight of the administration's use of Iraq intelligence. Yet the committee's leading Democrat, Rockefeller, hobbled by criticism from within the committee -- and according to one account, “a wimp … not confident of his own judgments” -- has felt constrained from pushing the majority more aggressively to comply with its promise.
Accountability may yet arrive. With press-time reports that special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald was homing in on a group of top White House aides for playing a role in outing CIA agent Valerie Plame to the media (in an effort to retaliate against her husband for exposing the White House's hyping of dubious Iraq intelligence) perhaps the courts will take up where Congress has failed.
Laura Rozen reports on foreign-policy and national-security issues from Washington, D.C., as a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, a contributor to The Nation and other publications, and for her blog, War and Piece.