Protecting our nation’s secrets – why have deadlines passed with no apparent consequences?

Posted on July 27, 2007

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Today is July 27, 2007. A little over a month ago, Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA), Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (aka Oversight Committee), demanded that the White House and the Oversight Committee make some progress on scheduling interviews with White House officials about improper oversight of our national secrets. A little less than a month ago, Congressman Waxman also demanded that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales answer a set of questions about the legality of Vice President Dick Cheney’s claim to be part of the legislative branch and thus not subject to the oversight body responsible for safeguarding our national secrets.

In the June 26, 2007 letter to White House Counsel Fred Fielding, Chairman Waxman demanded that several current and former White House officials be made available for interviews before the committee. And he warned that, if progress wasn’t made, he’d be forced to ask the full Oversight Committee to consider congressional subpoenas at the June 28, 2007 meeting following that day’s scheduled hearings. According to the Recent Hearings and Meetings section of the Oversight Committee’s schedule webpage, that business meeting was canceled.

In addition, a letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales dated June 27, 2007 requests that the Attorney General answer a set of questions that relate specifically to whether Vice President Cheney has the authority to exempt his office from Executive Orders and whether Cheney’s tortured logic about being part of the legislative branch holds legal water. And the letter demands that all the questions be answered and returned to the committee no later than July 12, 2007. According to the Oversight Committee’s webpage, no further action has been taken in the two weeks since the deadline passed.

And there are no hearings scheduled to take any action on either passed deadline before the summer break.

I can’t help but ask – why not?

The one hearing that is scheduled between now and the summer break is on the tragic friendly-fire death of Pat Tillman. The Oversight Committee wants to know what the Pentagon brass knew about the real cause of his death and when they learned it. The nation has a vested interest in knowing that the generals and admirals running our military aren’t lying scumbags, but I think that the committee’s priorities are badly misplaced.

Pat Tillman died in an accident in Afghanistan several years ago. Knowing that our military leaders aren’t scumbags will not change this fact or have much of an effect on the security portion of our national authority. On the other hand, knowing whether or not the classified information security procedures in place in the White House and the Office of the Vice President are permitting leaks of our most sensitive secrets to our enemies will have a dramatic effect on our security, especially if something is found to be insufficient. Maybe it’s callous of me to suggest this, but the Oversight Committee’s work should focus first on issues where shining some light on the issue will have an immediate effect. Issues like unsafe FEMA trailers, poor federal contractor oversight, and the supposed exemptions from classified information oversight of the White House and the Office of the Vice President.

The White House has been been caught lying on national TV about about how they supposedly safeguard classified information. The White House has claimed to be in compliance with all Executive Orders when they’re actually claiming a non-existent exemption from inspection by the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) of the National Archives. Vice President Dick Cheney has excused his entire office from oversight under the mistaken impression that he’s a fourth branch of government that gets to choose whether it’s part of executive branch or the legislative branch on a case-by-case basis. And yet we don’t have any indications of progress on the part of the Oversight Committee weeks after the last deadline passed.

I asked the Oversight Committee to comment about these issues. I wanted to know what the status of the negotiations with the White House was and whether the negotiations were progressing sufficiently to justify waiting on congressional subpoenas. I wanted to know if the committee had received answers to the questions they posed to the Attorney General. I wanted to know, if they hadn’t got an answer from the Attorney General, what were they going to do next, and when.

As of this point, the Oversight Committee had not yet responded.

I’m quite concerned by this. Sure, it could be that Scholars & Rogues simply isn’t important enough yet to be worthy of answering. But given that there has been no further hearings on the issue of mishandling of classified information in the month since the first deadline passed, I can’t help but wonder if something else is going on instead.

The Justice Department attorney firing scandal is making good hay for the Democratic Party. Everyone who watched the NFL knew Pat Tillman. Hurricane Katrina survivors should not be permitted to live in formaldehyde-polluted trailers. The Postal Service is one of the most visible semi-government entities there is. All of these things are sure-fire political crowd pleasers , while the arcana involved in protecting classified information are, well, arcane. And if it’s true, then that means something I don’t really want to think about.

It means that the Democratic House leadership may be just as guilty of putting politics before safeguarding our national secrets as the President and the Vice President are.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope that the committee is getting what they need to conduct the oversight they’re charted to conduct. I hope that Attorney General Gonzales answered the questions satisfactorily, and that the interviews of the current and former White House officials have given the Oversight Committee sufficient information to either say “everything’s OK” or “we need to dig some more.” Given the unwillingness of the Bush Administration to cooperate with the Democratic Congress, I seriously doubt it. But the only way to know is for the committee to tell us.

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