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White House Faces Sweeping Congressional Oversight

White House Faces Sweeping Congressional Oversight

By Matt Renner and Jason Leopold
t r u t h o u t | Report

Thursday 26 April 2007

Congress took unprecedented action against the Bush administration Wednesday, using its sweeping powers to vigorously pursue testimony and documents from key White House officials and agencies on issues that have mired the administration in at least a half-dozen scandals.

Covering a broad range of topics including allegations of widespread corruption, two Congressional committees authorized subpoenas - one for Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to compel her to testify about how a now-discredited 2003 claim that Iraq sought yellowcake uranium from the African country of Niger made its way into President Bush's State of the Union address. Subpoenas were also approved for the Republican National Committee to secure thousands of emails missing from an RNC server used by White House officials, and to require testimony by top officials of the RNC.

Additionally, the House Judiciary Committee granted immunity to former Justice Department official Monica Goodling, and approved a subpoena to force her to testify before Congress about her role and the role of White House officials in the firings of eight US attorneys last year. In an interview Tuesday on the program "Hardball," David Iglesias, the former US attorney from New Mexico, said Goodling "holds the keys to the kingdom" and could very well implicate key officials in the White House in the firings if she testifies. Iglesias was fired last year by the Department of Justice under questionable circumstances.

The Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan), also approved a subpoena for Sara Taylor, a deputy to White House political adviser Karl Rove. Rove is said to have played a major role in the US attorney firings, and his use of an RNC email account to conduct official White House business has come under fire. The RNC said it lost thousands of emails Rove had sent over the past few years. The emails may shed further light on the nature of Rove's involvement in the firings and a number of other issues Congress is looking into.

Gonzales Under Fire

Separately, the Judiciary Committee's ranking Republican and its chairman wrote to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on Wednesday, demanding a written response to the more than 50 questions he could not answer during his testimony last week before Congress regarding the firings. Many Democrats believe the firings were politically motivated and may have been an attempt to sideline public corruption investigations involving Republican lawmakers.

"Provide the answers to the questions you could not recall last Thursday," Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and ranking Republican Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania) wrote to Gonzales on Wednesday.

Another Attorney Purge?

In a related development Wednesday afternoon, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York) wrote a letter to Gonzales, asking him to disclose all contacts the Justice Department and the White House had with embattled Congressman Rick Renzi (R-Arizona) related to a DOJ investigation of the lawmaker.

The letter was sent following an Associated Press report that claimed Renzi's former chief of staff contacted the US attorney for Arizona, Paul Charlton, weeks before the November midterm elections, about news reports of a pending indictment against Renzi related to the lawmaker's role in a 2005 land deal.

Moreover, Schumer said he wants Gonzales to respond to a Wall Street Journal report that stated the Justice Department refused to green-light Charlton's key requests related to his investigation of Renzi, which, as a result, derailed the US attorney's corruption probe until after the midterm elections.

A few weeks after the elections, Charlton was forced to resign.

"Taken together, today's reports raise new and serious questions about whether improper political motivations were involved in your decision to force Mr. Charlton to resign just a few weeks after the election," Schumer wrote. "To date, there has not been a compelling case made that Mr. Charlton deserved to be dismissed based on his performance as the chief federal prosecutor in Arizona."

The flurry of activity Wednesday marks the first time since President Bush took office in 2001 that Congress has used its vast oversight authority to rein in the White House for what lawmakers say is the administration's gross abuse of power - an abuse that has rippled across Capitol Hill and now includes the Justice Department, the RNC and numerous individuals working in various branches of government.

Questions for Rice About Prewar Intel

The subpoenas, particularly the one authorized for Condoleezza Rice, upholds the Democrats' midterm election campaign pledge to voters to investigate some of the lingering questions about the lead-up to the Iraq war and whether Rice and others in the executive branch knowingly relied upon bogus intelligence to win support for the invasion.

The subpoena for Rice comes on the heels of letters sent to her by Rep. Henry Waxman, (D-California), chairman of the House Reform and Government Oversight Committee. Waxman said Rice and her underlings have not provided satisfactory responses to his letters.

Rice aides at the State Department said she is too busy to meet with Waxman's committee to respond to questions about a four-year-old controversy.

Waxman is doggedly pursuing Rice's sworn testimony about statements she made when she was national security adviser in 2003 regarding Iraq's reported attempts to acquire uranium from Niger to build a nuclear weapon.

Rice has said that "no one ... in [White House] circles" knew about the problems with the uranium claims.

Bush cited the uranium claim in his January 28, 2003 State of the Union address. It is widely believed that the allegation helped win public and Congressional support for military action against Iraq and paved the way to war. However, the International Atomic Energy Association who said it was based upon forged documents and bogus intelligence debunked the uranium claim months later.

The RNC and Missing Emails

Waxman's committee also authorized two subpoenas for the Republican National Committee. If issued, the subpoenas would order the RNC to turn over archived emails from White House staff members who hold private RNC email accounts. The use of outside email addresses to conduct official White House business may be a violation of the Presidential Records act, which requires presidents to archive all correspondence for historical records.

Furthermore, the RNC subpoena includes a demand for documents related to the political activities of federal employees. Waxman is investigating a presentation given by J. Scott Jennings, deputy director of political affairs, to the General Services Administration. In the presentation, Jennings outlined polling data from the 2006 national elections and issued a list of the Republican Party's electoral targets for 2008. Jennings's presentation may violate a law known as the Hatch Act. The Hatch Act prohibits the use of government resources for political purposes.

The committee was also scheduled to vote on subpoenas for White House documents pertaining to dealings between the Executive Office of the President and the disgraced military contractor MZM Inc. But after extensive negotiation, the White House met Waxman's deadline and turned over those documents on Tuesday.

Responding to fierce criticism by some Republican colleagues on the Oversight Committee that he has engaged in a "fishing expedition," Waxman calmly pointed out that during his tenure as a member of the same committee during Bill Clinton's presidency, the Republican majority issued more than 1,000 subpoenas. Only five were while Republicans controlled Congress during the first six years of Bush's presidency, and not a single one was issued directly to the White House.

"Think about that contrast," Waxman said, responding to the criticism Wednesday: "1,052 subpoenas to the Clinton administration and Democratic targets, compared to just five subpoenas to the Bush administration. This committee has lived at two extremes. And neither has served the public well. I am taking a different approach today. I believe the entire committee should have a chance to participate in the subpoenas we will consider ..."

Eventually all of the subpoenas were authorized for various administration officials, with committee members voting along party lines.

Committee Seeks Communications Between White House and Disgraced Military Contractor

In a letter to White House Counsel Fred Fielding Monday, Waxman offered up an explanation about why his committee has decided to investigate correspondence between the White House and MZM, saying that "... subsequent investigations have uncovered serious irregularities, and in some cases criminal conduct, by MZM employees, members of Congress, and Bush administration officials related to MZM contracts."

MZM's Founder and former Chief Executive Mitchell Wade plead guilty to bribery charges in connection with the corruption case against former congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham in San Diego. News reports said that US Attorney Carol Lam, one of the eight federal prosecutors fired last year, was investigating the connections between the White House contracts and the Cunningham case prior to her removal.

Subpoena for Former Bush Aide May Soon Be Approved

In another matter sensitive for the White House, this time related to the leak of the identity of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson, Waxman's committee delayed authorizing subpoenas for former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card as part of the investigation by the Oversight Committee into alleged massive security breaches at the White House. Waxman wants Card to testify about security issues related to the leak of Plame Wilson's undercover status, as well as the White House's handling of classified information.

The White House has previously refused to make Card available for testimony, but in his letter, Waxman pointed out that on April 16, Card "appeared on 'The Daily Show' with Jon Stewart and discussed the leak of Ms. Wilson's identity." Waxman said Card's appearance on the show, but his refusal to testify before Congress, was unacceptable.

"Mr. Fielding's position appears to be that it is appropriate for you to discuss these matter on 'The Daily Show,' but not before a Congressional committee.... I take a different view."

Waxman said Wednesday that he would wait to consider a subpoena for Card until Thursday, in order to continue negotiations with Fielding. Fred Fielding was named White House counsel after Harriet Miers resigned that position.


Jason Leopold is senior editor and reporter for Truthout. He received a Project Censored award in 2007 for his story on Halliburton's work in Iran.

Matt Renner is a reporter for Truthout.

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