With Difficulty, Senator Pat Roberts Manages to Avoid the Question

Monday, February 13, 2006 at 04:58 PM

On the 2-12-06 Meet the Press devoted to the NSA domestic spying controversy, Senator Pat Roberts stammered, spoke in sentence snippets, and changed directions more often than a dog chasing a butterfly.  He was especially unintelligible in attempting to answer Russert's question of why the President shouldn't simply go to congress to get any needed amendments to FISA that would allow the NSA domestic spying program to be conducted under the terms of that statute.

Check out these Roberts responses from the transcript, below.

MR. RUSSERT:  Stop there. Then why not change the law rather than just ignore it?

SEN. ROBERTS:  There was a lull about a year and a half ago, maybe two years ago, where that was considered. And everybody took a look at it and said, "Now wait a minute. If you change the FISA law and you have say a streamlined FISA law on top of FISA, you"--you've got to understand that these FISA cases are this thick and on emergency cases they are stacked up and on nonemergency cases even higher, and the time delay, we need action by minutes and hours to stop a terrorist attack. We're talking about days--days delay. So, consequently, you could do an amendment to FISA to say this particular program does fit under FISA, but it would be a streamlined FISA.

Now, understand that's only from a call from a foreign terrorist cell, an al-Qaeda terrorist cell to the United States; not a phone call in the United States to another person in the United States. Now, after you do all that, and you got to figure out what committee you go to and what jurisdiction you go to, and how many details you're going to reveal, and the operational details that you reveal--and I agree with Pete. We're to the point now where we're about to lose the capability. That's the big issue here in terms of going deaf. You're right back where you started from with a president's authority that he has under the Constitution, and you have that--the very same thing that you have now.

MR. RUSSERT:  Then why not go to Congress and say that, and request a change in the statute that would allow this activity specifically?  What's the reluctance to go to Congress?

SEN. ROBERTS:  I think that they do--I don't know, this--I have some memory pills, I think everybody here ought to take a memory pill every morning on the recollection of, you know, what really went on, because that's not my recollection. My recollection was that we just sat there with the people who did the briefing, I'm not going to say who, and they said, "Do we need to change this law?" And we started to really figure out what jurisdiction, how we could change it, how we could streamline FISA, because it is outdated because of the time constraints and because of the stack of materials that they have at FISA. And don't tell me that isn't there, because I've just been there. OK?  So here we have a situation where we need to change the FISA law, and everybody said, "Well, what jurisdiction is--and then you're going to have to reveal the operational details." One of the concerns I had was that some people were saying, "Well, maybe we could just put a line in here," or--you know, like the manager's amendment that we do in the Senate, or whatever, in the House, and say, "Just get it done." You can't do that. You've got to say, "What are we doing?  How are we doing it?" Give it to the jurisdictional committees, and then we will see exactly what happened in The New York Times whether the program is going to be followed.

MR. RUSSERT:  But, Senator, if you believe that the president had the authority to do this with the statute in September of 2001, "Use all necessary means," then why not go to Congress and say, "We need the president to have the authority to do domestic eavesdropping against phone calls that either originate here or overseas when there's indication that it involves al-Qaeda," period, and put that before a vote of Congress?  Why not ask for the authority?  What's the fear?

SEN. ROBERTS:  He already has the constitutional authority, regardless of the use of force issue, as did Roosevelt when the Supreme Court said, "No, you can't do that," and he did it anyway and said, "It's too late after an attack." But he needed this extra--what?--this extra authority or this extra program, this capability to say, if you have a terror cell here, they're plotting against the United States, they called the United States, then we at least have the time frame that we can act.

MR. RUSSERT:  Should there be an investigation into that leak by the vice president? [authorizing Libby to leak intelligence details]

SEN. ROBERTS:  The executive basically has control over what's classified and what isn't. It could very well be that we don't know yet whether that information was declassified and was actually given as purported in the press. That has to play out in regards to grand jury proceedings.

MR. RUSSERT:  But should we find out?  If there's been an allegation made that in fact classified information was leaked, should there be an investigation?

SEN. ROBERTS:  Oh, I think--I think we ought to find out every allegation. My God, how many investigations have we had here on the board now?  If we investigate the NSA, you're shooting the messenger. As I say, I have paid a visit out there. These people are dedicated, they are--they have great expertise, you sit next to lawyers, you go through checklists in regards to make sure that they're following the law exactly. That's exactly the wrong place to do any kind of an investigation.

And I might add in regards to this effort to brief the full committees, I will give the administration some credit, and had something to do with it, by the way, and I think the reception on the House side was much better. I think Jane and Pete all said that everybody came out of there feeling a little better about the program, like to know more about it, but then you get into operational details and you worry about leaks.

We have the same thing on our side. We had a pretty good session, but then immediately after that session, we had two senators issue a press release on the very one thing that we talked about in regard--I can't say that--the very one thing that was the most sensitive issue of all. So, you know, who leaks around this place, I don't know.

I remember when we had the investigation on the 9/11 investigation joint House/Senate Intelligence Committee. And then there was an intercept, an NSA intercept, and it was leaked to the press--had nothing to do with 9/11 but it was very incendiary. The time is now, the match is burning, OK?  And so the president said, "Whoa!  Wait a minute. Stop!  Stop the whole thing. I'm not going to give you anything." And then the FBI was granted permission to investigate the Congress when we were investigating the FBI. How silly was that!

So it does happen from Congress. I suspect it's some Justice Department guy by a water cooler who's upset about this or it may even be--perish the thought--a FISA judge whose basic, you know, feelings or ego is second only to that of senators.

SEN. ROBERTS:  We did--we did the WMD study.

MR. RUSSERT:  Yeah, you promised on this program...

SEN. ROBERTS:  Our inquiry. Yes, I did. Now--and by the way, there are five pieces to that, and by the way, it would be--we have 13 people working on it, and three will be ready next month. And it's something to say that phase two is now completed, and then have a lot of criticism of it, by the same people who keep moving the goal post and adding in more information.

We are now going to, on that one particular piece that would refer to this gentleman, 40,000--even more than that--intelligence papers to match up what people said, and they looked at the intelligence and say, "Does that make sense?" So phase two will be completed, and rest assure there's nobody in Washington that wants that completed more than I do.

Now we interviewed over 250 analysts during the WMD--the WMD inquiry, including this gentleman. Not one, except him now, post after all this is done, said that they were pressured in any way. And that was backed up by the WMD commission. Now, there was some comment about repeated questioning, but most analysts will say there better be some repeated questioning, but there was no--no political pressure, no manipulation. We asked over 250 analysts about that.

Now, the intelligence was wrong. We had a world-wide intelligence failure. That's why the Congress stepped up and passed the intelligence reform bill, that's why the WMD commission recommended 95 changes, and the administration has made 94. But this gentleman was interviewed, and when he was interviewed that kind of rhetoric was not in the interview.