Saturday, December 16, 2006

Incoming Chairmen Ready to Investigate

Democratic-Led Panels to Probe Administration's Actions in War and Counterterrorism

Incoming Democratic committee chairmen say they will hold a series of hearings and investigations early next year to build the case for their call for a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and for possible action against defense contractors found to have wasted billions in federal funds.

The emerging plans to grill administration officials on the conduct of the war are part of a pledge for more aggressive congressional oversight on issues such as prewar intelligence, prisoner treatment at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, and the government's use of warrantless wiretaps.

Among the most eager incoming chairmen is Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), a lawyer with a professor's demeanor and a prosecutor's doggedness. As head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Levin, 72, will be his party's point man on the Iraq war and on the Democrats' call to begin withdrawing troops in the coming months.

Levin said he also plans inquiries into "documentation of waste and fraud and abuse in the contracting areas" of the military. Aggressive oversight "is not just a budget issue," he said, but at some point "becomes a significant moral issue." In the House, Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), another leading advocate of a phased withdrawal, has vowed to use his Appropriations subcommittee chairmanship to investigate the Iraq war, holding "two hearings a day for the first three or four months . . . to find out exactly what happened and who's been responsible for these mistakes."

In committee after committee next month, the gavel will be handed by Bush allies to ardent Democrats deeply frustrated by what they see as the GOP-led Congress's refusal to conduct meaningful oversight and to hold the executive branch accountable.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said he will use his Judiciary Committee perch to conduct "real oversight" of the FBI and the Justice Department and to delve into "the abuse of billions of taxpayers' dollars sent as development aid to Iraq."

"I am not prepared to accept answers like 'I can't talk about it,' " Leahy said in a recent speech at Georgetown University's law school.

Levin, a sharp critic of the administration's use of prewar intelligence, will have new, substantial powers to press the White House for information and for a new direction in Iraq.

In a recent interview in his Senate office, Levin said the Senate Armed Services Committee's first priority will be to seek ways to stabilize Iraq and gradually disengage the United States from the war. But the committee will also hold retrospective hearings, he said, to determine whether administration officials manipulated intelligence before the war and whether the post-invasion provisional government abused its contracting powers and wasted huge sums of money.

"There is a responsibility from a lessons-learned perspective and an accountability perspective to fill in the blanks," said Levin, who voted against authorizing the war in 2002. "And there have been a number of blanks." Some lower-level military personnel have been held accountable for matters such as detainee mistreatment, he said, "but almost none in the intelligence community."

Having Levin replace John W. Warner (R-Va.) as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee will "hugely" change oversight, said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), a longtime colleague. Rockefeller, incoming chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, also plans more aggressive hearings.

"Oversight doesn't have to be a hostile process," Rockefeller said. But he said he and Levin are determined to overcome the administration's long-standing refusal to hand over documents concerning the White House contention in 2002 and 2003 that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. "The public must understand that you can't do that," Rockefeller said.

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