Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s (W.Va.) unwillingness to consult Senate Democratic leaders on his strategy for tackling the White House’s potential misuse of intelligence data is raising the hackles of some in his Caucus who fear a lack of a coordinated message could foil Democratic attempts to take full political advantage of the situation.
‘He’s not the team player we need him to be,” one senior Senate Democratic aide said of the ranking member of the Intelligence Committee.
With Democrats raising questions about whether the White House intentionally publicized suspect intelligence to justify the need to invade Iraq, Rockefeller has become a coveted TV news guest. But some Democrats complain that his moderate tone and cautious approach to his panel’s inquiry into the White House’s use of intelligence is making it more difficult for other Democrats to aggressively criticize the administration and is sending the public mixed messages about the gravity of the situation.
‘The leadership can’t really do anything about it,” the Democratic aide said.
Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.) denied there was any anger toward Rockefeller, but he noted that the 18-year Senate veteran does not take kindly to leadership interference in his activities.
‘He doesn’t need to be told what to do, and if you tried to tell him what to do, he probably wouldn’t do it,” Reid said.
Rockefeller acknowledged that he has been charting his own course in the intelligence matter and said he had not had any conversations with Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) about how he should proceed.
‘It wouldn’t occur to me to do that,” Rockefeller said. ‘I don’t feel I need to check in.”
Rockefeller also dismissed the notion that he was not cooperating with Democratic leadership attempts to coordinate the criticism of the White House.
‘We’ve been in total coordination,” he said Tuesday in response to questions about the internal criticism.
But in an interview last week, Rockefeller was more blithe.
‘It’s hard to coordinate. Things move too fast,” he said at the time.
A senior Senate Democratic aide said the coordination issue was not a ‘huge problem” now, but some Democrats fear a continued lack of a coherent message could eventually prevent the party from fully capitalizing on what they view as a principal Bush weakness going into the 2004 presidential election.
Another Senate Democratic aide noted that some lawmakers have also privately complained that Rockefeller has appeared at times to defend Intelligence Chairman Pat Roberts’ (R-Kan.) reluctance to initiate a probe.
The staffer also said that Armed Services ranking member Carl Levin (D-Mich.) was so disappointed with what he felt was the limited scope and closed nature of the Intelligence inquiry, as well as Armed Services Chairman John Warner’s (R-Va.) reluctance to initiate an investigation, that he ordered his own committee staff to begin looking into the intelligence used to justify the war.
Levin, however, denied that he launched his own probe because of Rockefeller’s agreement with Roberts to have a series of closed hearings.
‘It has nothing to do with dissatisfaction,” said Levin, who has been calling for a far-reaching, open inquiry.
Rockefeller also has irked some in his party by openly criticizing Democratic presidential candidates who have accused the White House of misleading the American public in this year’s State of the Union address.
For example, in a June appearance on Fox News, Rockefeller responded to a question about presidential aspirant Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) comment that President Bush may have ‘lied” in his State of the Union address about Iraq’s pursuit of weapons-grade plutonium:
‘The Senator is running for president,” Rockefeller said. ‘And I think that Pat Roberts and I make a distinction between people who are running for president and therefore need to capture attention and what we on the Intelligence Committee have to do.”
Rockefeller defended those comments as necessary and proof of his desire to approach the matter with impartiality.
‘I’ve made what people call very bipartisan comments because I’ve been critical of a couple of presidential candidates, when they say things with a clear political purpose,” Rockefeller explained. ‘But I say it so I can keep my credibility within the intelligence community.”
Rockefeller emphasized that, in addition to other reasons, he has been very outspoken in criticizing the administration’s attempt to blame CIA Director George Tenet for allowing intelligence gleaned from forged documents to make it into the State of the Union address. He has repeatedly insisted that White House aides, including National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, had to have been aware that the intelligence on Iraq’s attempts to buy plutonium from Africa had been discredited.
But he acknowledged that he has tried to criticize responsibly, especially following Tenet’s appearance last week before the Intelligence panel.
‘What I said was balanced and it was sort of forward-looking,” he said. ‘And I think that is my role.”