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 new 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 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."
A hunger for hindsight
In committee after committee next month, the gavel will be handed from 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 also will 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."
Hostilities on the horizon?
Having Levin replace John W. Warner (R-Va.) as chairman of the 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.
Warner was not considered an administration apologist, but the committee's posture is certain to be more combative as soon as Levin assumes the chairmanship, colleagues and analysts said.
Rationale for war remains a hot topic
Levin "takes issues of oversight and hearings and authorization very seriously, and he guards very carefully the prerogatives of Congress," said Kurt Campbell, a former Pentagon official now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Levin will quiz military commanders on their advice about Iraq, Campbell said, and he will dig deeply into allegations of mismanagement and favoritism in the granting of contracts and plum jobs after the fall of Hussein.
"I think the Republicans will bristle at some of the things he wants to do," Campbell said, "because this really gets to the question of whether the previous Congress dropped the ball."
Levin plans to use his new powers in his long-running dispute with the Bush administration over the conduct of Douglas J. Feith, former undersecretary of defense for policy. Levin says Feith exaggerated the relationship between Hussein's government and al-Qaeda when the Bush administration was trying to build public support for the Iraq invasion.
The administration's repeated refusal to give Levin 58 documents related to Feith's activities is about to be tested. "We're entitled to those documents," Levin said. "If necessary, I intend to subpoena those documents."
Dems cite ‘obligation’ to help Iraq
Levin's House counterpart, incoming House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), also plans Iraq-related hearings. "His big priorities are support for our troops and their families; readiness, especially in the Army and Marine Corps; oversight; and Afghanistan, which he feels is the forgotten war," said his spokeswoman, Loren Dealy. "His concerns have been the lack of oversight in general. He feels it has not been adequate."
Levin said Iraq's future is his top priority. The situation "has got to be solved by the Iraqis politically," he said. "There is no military solution to it."
He said the 2003 invasion obligated the United States to help post-Hussein Iraq get back on its feet. "We have carried out that obligation," Levin said. "We've been there three years plus. We've given them the opportunity."
Levin said he plans later hearings on the abuses of Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison and the treatment of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and elsewhere.
Under Warner, the committee showed some interest in those topics, Levin said, "but the subpoenas haven't gone out, obviously. We may have to issue subpoenas in that area as well."