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Hill Presses on Investigations

Three Panels OK Subpoenas

Over Republican objections, Democrats on Wednesday approved a handful of subpoenas to force testimony by administration officials and allies — and to produce e-mails from GOP computers — on issues ranging from the firing of U.S. attorneys to the use of pre-war intelligence.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee approved two subpoenas for e-mail records from the Republican National Committee, after rejecting Republican amendments to limit the scope of the records demanded, extend the same request to the Democratic National Committee and issue a separate subpoena to former Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger to discuss his mishandling of presidential documents. Berger has admitted to removing documents from the National Archives during his preparations for testimony before the 9/11 commission.

The committee also approved a subpoena to require Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to testify on May 15 about what she knew regarding a now-discredited claim in President Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address that Saddam Hussein was attempting to procure nuclear material from Niger.

Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) sought to distinguish the subpoenas from what he called the misuse of the subpoena power by the committee’s two prior Republican chairmen — who both sat next to Waxman as he spoke. Waxman belittled the blizzard of subpoenas issued by former Chairman Dan Burton (R-Ind.) during the Clinton administration and said former Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) failed to issue enough subpoenas of the administration during his tenure at the helm. Waxman noted that committee rules allow the chairman to issue subpoenas unilaterally, as Burton often did, but said he wanted to establish a precedent of allowing members to debate and vote on subpoenas before they are issued.

Waxman’s subpoenas to the RNC are intended to determine whether White House officials used political accounts at the RNC to conduct official government business. Waxman contends that in three ongoing investigations — regarding a political briefing given to senior staff at the General Services Administration, the firing of eight U.S. attorneys and the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal — White House officials appear to have used their RNC accounts to avoid the record retention requirements that govern the White House e-mail system under the 1978 Presidential Records Act.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) used that concern as the basis for his amendment suggesting that the committee should subpoena from the DNC the same type of records it is seeking from the RNC. Issa said that to determine whether there is a problem in the implementation of the Presidential Records Act, the committee should compare implementation of the act under the current White House with the Clinton administration’s compliance with the act.

Waxman ruled the amendment out of order, arguing that there has been evidence of improper e-mail communications in the RNC accounts but no related evidence of misuse of the DNC accounts. Waxman also pointed out that under Burton’s tenure, the DNC had turned over more than 600,000 pages of documents to the committee.

The committee also released a letter from the RNC’s attorney listing 36 White House employees who have or had RNC accounts, including Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, Counselor to the President Dan Bartlett and Peter Wehner, who heads the Office of Strategic Initiatives, which National Journal has described as an “in-house, White House think tank.”

RNC Chairman Mike Duncan issued a statement Wednesday alleging that Democrats “will stop at nothing short of the entire Republican National Committee playbook for 2008 in their search for documents. While we continue to cooperate to the most appropriate level, we fully expect this Democrat fishing expedition to continue for the entire two years of their time in the majority.”

Republicans also objected to the Democrats’ plan to subpoena Rice, arguing that she has more important things to do than come to the committee to testify about pre-war intelligence. On May 15, Rice is supposed to be in the Middle East meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the Republicans said.

Davis and other Republicans repeated the theme that the Democrats’ questions already have been “asked and answered” by Rice in other venues, particularly in her confirmation hearing when she was nominated to become secretary of State. “This is just politics in its rawest form,” Davis said.

But Democrats argued that the explanations previously offered dealt with mistakes made by the intelligence agencies. “There has been no inquiry about what went wrong inside the White House,” Waxman said.

While Waxman’s committee was voting — strictly on party lines — to approve the subpoenas, the House and Senate Judiciary committees also were voting to authorize subpoenas of administration officials. The House committee, with the reluctant approval of ranking member Lamar Smith (R-Texas), agreed to provide immunity and compel the testimony of Monica Goodling, the former Justice Department liaison to the White House who has said she would invoke her Fifth Amendment rights not to speak if she were called to testify before the committee. The immunity agreement would eliminate her ability to cite self-incrimination as a reason not to testify, sources said.

The Senate committee, meanwhile, authorized a subpoena for Sara Taylor, a Rove deputy who was involved in the decision to fire the U.S. attorneys. Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and ranking member Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) also sent a sharply worded letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales asking him to provide “within a week” better answers to the dozens of questions to which he replied that he could not recall during his testimony before the committee April 19. As a result of Gonzales’ inability to provide answers to those questions, “the Committee’s efforts to learn the truth of why and how these dismissals took place, and the role you and other Department and White House officials had in them, has been hampered,” the Senators wrote.

The Senate and House Judiciary committee votes do not necessarily mean the subpoenas will be issued. Democrats on those committees point out that they may still be able to negotiate voluntary testimony from witnesses. But the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee immediately began processing its subpoenas and issued them late Wednesday.

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