Republicans on three separate congressional committees this week derailed three formal “resolutions of inquiry” by Democrats that would have required the Bush administration to turn over sensitive information and records relating to the outing of CIA officer Valerie Plame.
Had the resolutions of inquiry been adopted, they would have led to the first independent congressional inquiries of the Plame affair, and perhaps even the public testimony of senior Bush administration aides such as Karl Rove, the White House deputy chief of staff, and I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, the chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, about their personal roles.
As things currently stand, a special prosecutor, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, continues to conduct a grand jury investigation of Rove, Libby, and other White House officials, but the public has gained scant insight into what, if anything, that inquiry has uncovered.
Votes on all three House committees this week were along strictly partisan lines. The House Select Committee on Intelligence voted 11-9 on Thursday to adversely report H. Res. 418, which would have opened a formal inquiry by Congress of the Plame affair. The House International Relations Committee voted 26-21 against the same resolution one day earlier. And the House Judiciary Committee voted 15-11 on Wednesday as well against launching an inquiry.
Republicans argued that any vote in favor of the resolution might impair Fitzgerald’s ongoing probe. In the case of the House Intelligence Committee, they were aided when, at the very last minute, the Justice Department informed the committee that Fitzgerald himself opposed any independent inquiry by Congress at this point.
In a letter to the committee, dated September 14, William E. Moschella, an assistant attorney general for legislative affairs, wrote: “Mr. Fitzgerald has advised that production at this time of the documents responsive to H. Res.418 and the other resolutions, and any attendant hearings, would interfere with his investigation. Accordingly, we request that the committee report adversely H. Res. 418.”
Democrats, however, pointed out that Congress engaged in its own extensive formal investigations of Watergate and Whitewater even while special prosecutors conducted criminal inquiries.
Representative John Conyers of Michigan, the ranking Democrat and former chairman of the Judiciary Committee, made just that point during the debate, telling his colleagues:
“Let us not forget the endless hearings in this committee and others on alleged Clinton-Gore campaign finance violations, the Whitewater claims, and Clinton White House Travel Office firings. These were matters all under Justice Department review at the time of our hearings.
“Finally, I must remind my colleagues of the numerous House and Senate hearings on Watergate that were simultaneous with the Justice Department’s own investigation.”
In making the case for the resolutions, Conyers also cited a recent Voice story about the rationale for appointing a special prosecutor. The article disclosed that Justice Department officials made that crucial move because investigators had serious concerns that then attorney general John Ashcroft continued to receive regular briefings about the inquiry despite the fact that Karl Rove—a close personal and political friend of Ashcroft—had become a subject of the probe. The story quoted senior law enforcement sources as saying that Ashcroft continued the briefings even after he was told investigators firmly believed that Rove had withheld important information from them during an FBI interview.
Conyers questioned the Justice Department’s handling of the Plame investigation prior to Fitzgerald’s appointment virtually since its inception, alleging that Bush administration officials botched the initial stages of the inquiry, or perhaps even purposely stymied the efforts of investigators:
“The purpose of this resolution is to get to the bottom of what happened and why the Justice Department slow-walked the investigation at the beginning. We know that, despite [initial] urgent pleas from the CIA for a criminal investigation into the leaker, the Justice Department and White House dragged their feet. The Department then waited three days before notifying the White House of the breach and subsequent investigation. The White House then waited an additional 11 hours before telling staff to preserve evidence.”
Conyers wasn’t done there:
“We now know that then attorney general John Ashcroft insisted on being briefed on Department interviews of Mr. Rove that were conducted in connection with the leak. He did so despite his own long-standing ties to Mr. Rove; Mr. Ashcroft had paid Mr. Rove almost $750,000 for work on several campaigns. That Mr. Ashcroft eventually recused himself demonstrates there were conflicts of interest with his continued involvement.”
A Justice Department spokesman did not return telephone calls for comment either on Wednesday or Thursday. Ashcroft also declined to comment.
The House Armed Services Committee will be soon the fourth congressional committee to consider the matter. Their vote is scheduled for September 20. But it’s similarly unlikely that any Republicans will break ranks and vote in favor an inquiry.