The procedural maneuvering that prevented the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence from even voting on whether to hold hearings into the NSA surveillance program may prove to be a watershed event in the history of the Bush administration, because the vote it avoided could have been a tipping point on which the legitimacy and continuing relevance of the entire Bush administration might have hinged.
In one scenario, a decision by the Intel Committee to hold hearings could have started events cascading against the administration in a way that even the Republican machine, weakened by sagging poll numbers, ethics scandals, the decapitation of its lobbying apparatus, and the restiveness of Congresspeople trying to win reelection in the absence of Presidential coattails, couldn't stop.
In the other scenario, a vote to sweep the NSA scandal under the rug could have been the administration's Battle of Britain: the point when, at its weakest and subject to heavy attack, it nevertheless held firm and won the day in a way that foreshadowed its resurgence and eventual victory.
Ultimately, it was neither. The Intelligence Committee did not vote to hold hearings, denying us the chance to get momentum on our side at last. To that extent, we lost and the administration won. But neither did the administration win a convincing, morale-boosting, influence-reviving victory; stretching the Battle of Britain analogy, the administration essentially snuck into our airbases and put sugar cubes into our bombers' gas tanks, avoiding (or at least postponing; more on that later) the battle altogether. Clever, but hardly noble or decisive.
Making it even harder to decipher the meaning of Thursday's non-vote, what exactly happened in the inner working of the Committee has been unclear. On the one hand, Democratic senator Jay Rockefeller's office clearly thought it not only would get a vote in Committee, but that the vote would go his way. A Rockefeller staffer told me, consistently over several days leading up to the vote, that Chairman Pat Roberts had promised Rockefeller hearings, and that the Rockefeller office continued to assume he would keep his word. And Rockefeller's rage after the hearing certainly seemed sincere: he felt betrayed in a way that used to be uncommon in the collegial and formerly honorable Senate, and said so. On the other hand, Dartanyon, a poster here at VichyDems who has reliable sources on the Hill, was equally adamant as the vote approached that the fix was in several days ahead of time, and there would be no hearings.
A story in today's Washington Post gives insight into what actually happened in the last moments before the Committee vote, and lends support to my thesis that strong, direct citizen activism immediately before AND after key procedural events like this is a critical component of the overall effort to reclaim our democracy. The WaPo reports:
[L]ast Thursday, as the Senate intelligence committee readied for a showdown over a motion by top Democrat John D. Rockefeller IV (W.Va.) to start a broad inquiry into the surveillance program. White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. -- who had visited the Capitol two days earlier with Vice President Cheney to lobby Republicans on the program -- spoke by phone with Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), according to Senate sources briefed on the call.
Snowe earlier had expressed concerns about the program's legality and civil liberties safeguards, but Card was adamant about restricting congressional oversight and control, said the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing office policies. Snowe seemed taken aback by Card's intransigence, and the call amounted to "a net step backward" for the White House, said a source outside Snowe's office.
Snowe contacted fellow committee Republican Chuck Hagel (Neb.), who also had voiced concerns about the program. They arranged a three-way phone conversation with Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.).
Until then, Roberts apparently thought he had the votes to defeat Rockefeller's motion in the committee, which Republicans control nine to seven, the sources said. But Snowe and Hagel told the chairman that if he called up the motion, they would support it, assuring its passage, the sources said.
When the closed meeting began, Roberts averted a vote on Rockefeller's motion by arranging for a party-line vote to adjourn until March 7.
Why did Dartanyon's sources say the fix was in several days before the hearing? Because Roberts believed, all the way up to Thursday morning, that he had the votes in the bag. Why did Rockefeller think he would at least get a "upperdown" vote? Because Roberts didn't realize he didn't have Snowe and Hagel in the bag until that very morning.
How about the impact of citizen pressure? Do we really make a difference in this stuff? Absolutely. A swing of either Hagel's or Snowe's vote would have resulted in a tie in Committee and been seen as a setback to the administration, which would have made more news than the procedural dodge did and would have subtly shifted momentum to our side. A defection by both of them, as Rockefeller apparently anticipated, would have resulted in hearings -- and was, up to the very day of the meeting, a real possibility by their own admission.
And, lending creedence to my thesis that citizen activism may be as influential AFTER events like this as it is beforehand, the key Republicans in this fiasco already are "stung" and backpedaling:
Hagel and Snowe declined interview requests after the meeting, but sources close to them say they bridle at suggestions that they buckled under administration heat. The White House must engage "in good-faith negotiations" with Congress, Snowe said in a statement.
Even Roberts is looking over his shoulder. Newsweek refers to him as "restless", the New York Times calls him "stung" over accusations of caving in to the administration, and all three sources (Newsweek, Time, and the WaPo) report that Roberts now is backing a plan to have the FISA Court oversee the NSA program -- an extremely problematic, possibly unworkable solution, but one infinitely better than the administration-backed Mike DeWine proposal to simply exempt the entire program from the law. It appears that Roberts adopted that position the day AFTER the procedural vote blocking hearings, in response to criticism.
I've said before (a good post, if I do say so myself, worth reading together with this one!) -- I've said before that the White House has two lines of defense: first, to stop all hearings altogether; and second, if that fails, to keep those hearings narrow -- limited to amending FISA -- rather than broadly inquiring into the operational details and legal ramifications of the NSA program. The Senate Judiciary Committee already has conducted one hearing into the NSA program and, at least for now, intends to hold two more. The House Intelligence Committee has voted to hold hearings; the battle there is over the scope of those hearings, and in government, all scopes tend to enlarge themselves; it's the nature of inquiry and of power. And the deal struck on Thursday in Senate Intelligence is built on sand -- specifically, on the airy, unreliable sand of the administration's promises. This White House is going to provide transparency to Congress? Give me a break.
Pat Roberts' procedural moves on Thursday only bought the administration a little time -- until March 7, to be exact. Rove, Card and Cheney think they can use that time to bolster their defenses and keep the NSA scandal in a box. But we also can use that time to make certain that it overflows and keeps overflowing. Already there are reports of another illegal surveillance program that the White House has concealed from Congress. Already Roberts, Snowe and Hagel -- one-third of the Republican Senate Intel membership -- are feeling the heat of public criticism and are moving away from the administration's preferred position.
So what do We, the People, do now? Easy: we stay in the saddle. There's one major flaw in my Battle of Britain analogy: they, not we, are the fascists attacking a democratic nation. We, not they, are the beleaguered brave, withstanding seemingly overwhelming assaults with fortitude and skill. We, not they, will win the eventual victory if only, if only, we don't weaken. And we won't weaken. We will persevere. And we will prevail. As Winston Churchill famously said:
Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never--in nothing, great or small, large or petty--never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.
Never give in. Never give in. For God's sake, we don't even have to withstand aerial bombardment, we just need to keep calling our Senators and Congresspeople and telling them, our civil servants, that we demand accountability and transparency. Phone calling may seem petty; but we don't yield, even in the petty. Those hammer taps, the voices of democracy recorded on voicemails and logged in daily reports by staffers, those hammer taps of democracy repeated often enough by enough people, will tip the edifice, so precariously balanced today, onto the side of democracy; and you, the virtual patriots, will be the ones that did it.
So please pick up the phone and make a call. Send an email. Shoot a fax. In particular, fill up Snowe's and Hagel's DC and District voicemails. And, if you want to amplify your efforts, please tell your friends what we're up to here and encourage them to do the same. If you haven't signed up with our "updates" list (right sidebar), please do so, and ask your friends to do so. Kids home from school? Give them a civics class at home: sit them down with milk, a brownie, a telephone and a phone list. (Not even a Republican can withstand a child's voice saying, 'please, sir, I just want my country to be honest and fair.')
Inexorable democracy doesn't usually make much noise. It's not the raucous blare of quadrennial conventions. Rather, it's usually just a tiny sound: a tap, tap, tap.
The Senate Intelligence Committee contact information is here. The House Intelligence Committee contact information is here.
SUPPLEMENT, 12:15 pm PT: Glenn Greenwald says more smart stuff.