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March 4, 2004

Seeking subpoenas
McCain and Bush clash on powers, scope of intel probe

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is pushing the White House to give subpoena power to the independent commission President Bush created last month to investigate intelligence operations.

The administration has turned him down, but the senator is refusing to take no for an answer.

The clash reignites a bitterness first sparked when Bush and McCain fought for the GOP presidential nomination in 2000.

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Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is pushing for subpoena power.

Bush initially opposed creating the commission, but, under pressure from Democrats and some Republicans, he signed an executive order Feb. 6 to form the nine-member commission.

But the president defined the scope of its inquiry narrowly, appointed its members without consulting congressional Democrats and denied it subpoena power. Bush also asked the commission to report back by March 31, 2005, five months after the general election.

McCain is one of the commission’s most prominent members and says it will be ineffective without the power to subpoena the administration. “I just think you need to have the threat of subpoena power,” McCain told The Hill.

He said he told Dick Cheney that on the phone recently but the vice president refused.

McCain’s plans to take the issue to the commission’s chairmen, former Sen. Chuck Robb (D-Va.) and Laurence Silberman, a federal appeals-court judge who served as deputy attorney general in the Nixon and Ford administrations.

McCain also wants to extend the inquiry’s scope beyond the limits set down by the president. Bush prescribed an examination of the quality of intelligence gathered on Iraq, but he withheld a mandate to scrutinize how the administration used the information.

McCain wants to examine how that intelligence was used by policymakers to justify the Iraq invasion.

This thorny issue has split Republican and Democratic members of the Senate Intelligence Committee for months. After much acrimony, Republicans finally agreed last month to Democratic demands to review the use of intelligence. One congressional source said giving the independent commission subpoena power would be “huge.”

“If you don’t have it, you have no leverage,” he said. “If you do have it, you have all types of leverage. … It’s the sign of a seriously empowered investigative commission.”

Lt. Gen. William Odom, who headed the National Security Agency under President Reagan, said that the Bush administration doesn’t want to give the commission subpoena power because of fear the commission will use it to “find a way into embarrassing material.”

“No administration ever says, ‘Please have subpoena power,’” said Odom, who now studies national security issues at the Hudson Institute. “Your political enemies are going to use it.”

The Bush administration has battled for months over access to sensitive documents with an independent commission led by former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, which is investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. That commission has issued at least three subpoenas.

McCain has traded phone calls with Robb to set up a breakfast meeting to discuss the commission, its agenda and other issues, including subpoena power.

“It’s interesting that McCain is initiating this because he’s not the chairman,” noted one congressional observer.

McCain has appeared more active than Robb, the top-ranking Democrat, in seeking wide authority. In a conversation with Bush prior to his appointment, Robb assured the president he would not support examining the administration’s use of intelligence, said a Senate source familiar with the meeting.

“Robb bent over backward [to say] he did not support looking at the users,” said the source.

Bush has made it clear to Robb that he must keep his distance from Senate Democrats. Robb learned that he was to be appointed co-chairmen only a few hours before Bush made a public announcement.

And Robb was warned that if he consulted with Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) before the announcement, he would be stripped of his appointment, Senate sources said.

McCain’s activism is raising questions of whether he is settling scores for the 2000 presidential race, which turned sour in South Carolina. But the senator says his relationship with Bush is good. At the request of the Bush-Cheney campaign, McCain attended an event for the president in New Hampshire in January during the Democratic presidential primary, acting as a surrogate for Bush.

“He supports the president for re-election and has cordial relations with the president,” said McCain spokesman Marshall Wittmann.

At least five separate committees are investigating prewar intelligence. They are the Senate and House intelligence panels, the Iraq Survey Group, a CIA internal review team and the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.

Unlike the House and Senate Committees, the president’s independent commission will not limit its intelligence review of weapons of mass destruction programs to Iraq.
“Their scope is a little broader,” said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) “It’s the systematic challenge we’ve had.”

Roberts hesitated when asked if the commission should be given subpoena power before finally saying “If they ask for it I think they ought to have it.”


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