In the White House’s Congressional briefings on the war, the administration appears to have reached one objective that has consistently eluded it: a satisfied audience.
“Members have found the briefings to be helpful,” said Jay Carson, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.).
In fact, the sensation among Members resembles nothing so much as relief. With a White House that has in two years established something of a new standard for official secrecy, Members were not optimistic about the prospects for disclosure during the military campaign in Iraq.
What they’ve found, however, is an administration that is suddenly bending over backwards to provide answers to their questions.
Daily closed-door presentations to Members in both chambers have been ritualized — 9 a.m. each morning for Senators, 10:30 a.m. in the House. The briefings are described as comprehensive — if not always thorough — and Members have had fairly regular access to top war planners such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“I think they’re trying to be responsive, they’re trying to provide access,” said Rep. Ellen Tauscher (Calif.), a key Democrat on defense and security issues, who indicated that she attends the briefings when she has particular questions in mind.
“It really breaks with the norm,” one senior Democratic Senate aide said. “Senators weren’t expecting a lot, and they’re getting a good deal right now.”
[IMGCAP(1)] The aide said Senators had been gratified, for instance, that Pentagon briefers elected last week to show them the entire videotape taken of captured American servicemen, some of whom had evidently been executed. The tape had been widely aired in the Arab world, but American networks had declined to show it.
“This White House has set exceedingly low expectations for sharing information with Congress, and they’re certainly surpassing expectations,” the aide added.
Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a key liaison between the White House and Capitol Hill, conceded that Members had complained about disclosure in the lead-up to war — an estrangement that Portman chalked up to the complex diplomacy under way at the United Nations.
But Portman said his impression is that Members consider the current information flow to be “superb,” and suggested the administration — Rumsfeld in particular — has won additional plaudits for straight-talking with lawmakers on the progress of the battle.
“Members don’t want [Rumsfeld] sugar-coating it, and they don’t want political answers to the questions they have,” Portman said. “And I think he and the others [from the administration] have been good about recognizing that.”
The administration’s penchant for secrecy is fast becoming the stuff of legend on Capitol Hill. Republican aides were stunned to the brink of amusement recently, when President Bush appeared alongside Secretary of State Colin Powell to announce a “road map” for peace in the tumultuous Arab-Israeli conflict.
It was the first anyone on Capitol Hill had heard of the plan — and GOP leadership aides had just gotten off a conference call with White House officials with whom they were working to coordinate communications.
“It’s pretty annoying,” one top GOP House aide said after the episode. “And it certainly doesn’t help [the relationship].”
To be sure, the praise given the White House for its openness during the war has been tempered by continued signs of what some lawmakers consider to be intransigence.
A brief shudder went through Capitol Hill on news last week that President Bush had altered a 1995 executive order on government secrecy, raising the threshold for the release of classified information. And Democrats have become so frustrated by what they characterize as uniform non-responsiveness to their oversight requests that they are threatening to compile the litany for publication.
Tauscher, for one, complained that in spite of the current glasnost around the war, she still hasn’t received an answer from the administration to “four or five” letters she has sent down Pennsylvania Avenue in recent months, looking for answers to questions about the relationship between the Iraqi regime and Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network.
Similar gripes have become common since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, though Congressional insiders acknowledge Capitol Hill’s share of the blame. White House apprehensions about sharing sensitive information with lawmakers was exacerbated by the apparent leak of intelligence suggesting the administration may have had useful information about the terrorists’ plot.
The information passed along to Congress about the war is not necessarily the most sensitive the White House has available. But Members appear to be willing to sacrifice some quality to quantity.
Rep. Joe Hoeffel (D-Pa.), a member of the International Relations Committee, said he considers the briefings “informative,” even if Members realize that in most instances they are not being given information that will remain unavailable to the general public.
“Frequently, what we hear in those briefings are things we can see on CNN that evening or read in the newspapers the next morning,” Hoeffel said.