Wednesday, July 05, 2006

In Regards to Domestic Spying

Californian, Simmons In A Squabble Democrat Wants Probe Of Spying, But He Refuses
July 5, 2006 By DAVID LIGHTMAN, Washington Bureau Chief The Hartford Courant

WASHINGTON -- The topics Reps. Rob Simmons and Zoe Lofgren are charged with considering are among the gravest - homeland security, national intelligence, government wiretaps.

Lately, though, the exchange between the House intelligence subcommittee's top members and staffs has been straight from the schoolyard.

Simmons, the chairman, is "wimpy," says Lofgren, the panel's top Democrat.Lofgren, D-Calif., "would rather debate in the sandbox," counters Todd Mitchell, Simmons' chief of staff.

"What's she going to say next, that Rob has cooties and gives wedgies?"

She says Simmons, R-2nd District, refuses to undertake a serious investigation of whether the government improperly spied on civilians. Simmons, a CIA veteran who prides himself on his knowledge of spying, has said in letters and through his staff that this is not a matter for his committee to probe.

Simmons would not discuss the issue with The Courant, offering only a written statement:

"For America to strengthen its intelligence capabilities, bipartisanship is the best approach and that's the approach I always pursue. America loses and becomes less safe when we make Homeland Security a partisan issue. That's why I refuse to participate in these partisan games."

But partisanship appears to have a role in this dispute. Lofgren is an ally of House Democratic leader Nancy D. Pelosi, D-Calif., who's been on a crusade to discredit GOP members who could lose in November. Simmons is one of Congress' most vulnerable Republicans.

Mitchell contends that Simmons has repeatedly consulted Lofgren by phone and letter, and he sees Pelosi's shadow behind her. Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King, R-N.Y., dubbed Lofgren's protests "political grandstanding" and Mitchell suggested Lofgren is talking to Pelosi about a strategy to embarrass Simmons.

Whatever the motivations, this much is clear: The two top members of the House Homeland Security Committee's subcommittee on intelligence, information sharing and terrorism risk assessment are not getting along.

It's a surprising duel, because the styles of Lofgren and Simmons are very similar. Both have a down-to-earth, unpretentious way of dealing with people.

Simmons, 63, is a military and intelligence veteran who often speaks bluntly, and Lofgren, 58, is a San Jose lawyer and easy conversationalist who once tried to list herself on the ballot as "county supervisor/mother."

Their clash began in earnest in January, about six weeks after news broke about the National Security Agency electronic eavesdropping on civilians in this country without first seeking court warrants.

Lofgren wrote Simmons a two-page letter Jan. 27 outlining her frustration in trying to learn more about the policy. She wanted a hearing and called the subcommittee's inaction on the NSA reports a "failure."

She appealed to Simmons, who has long had a reputation as a moderate Republican with a decent record of working with Democrats.

"As chairman," Lofgren wrote, "you have the power to change this."Simmons and King countered that he does not have the power because other committees, notably Judiciary and Intelligence, had authority over NSA spying and were pursuing the matter.

Homeland Security, he said, does not have jurisdiction.Lofgren persisted. According to Simmons' office, she asked that Jonathan Turley, a professor of constitutional law at George Washington University Law School, appear at an April 6 hearing on "Protection of Privacy: Department of Homeland Security Intelligence Enterprise. "

Lofgren did not stick around that day to hear Turley, leaving in protest without hearing or questioning him.

She headed for another hearing featuring Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, where Lofgren also thought she got no decent answers to her NSA concerns.

A short time later, Lofgren was allowed to call another witness, Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker, dean of University of the Pacific's McGeorge Law School and former general counsel at the NSA and the CIA.

NSA officials were also called to appear, but declined, saying they had no information to offer.

The hearing was scheduled for May 10, but Parker could not attend.Simmons did invite Gonzales, the NSA director, Lt. Gen. Keith B. Alexander, and Homeland Security Chief Intelligence Officer Charles Allen to testify. Gonzales and Alexander declined, but Allen appeared at a classified briefing in May and told lawmakers that the government was collecting data legally.

Simmons has maintained that he and his colleagues have been vigilant in overseeing intelligence.

In a two page letter to Lofgren in April, he cited nine subcommittee hearings at which intelligence-gathering was discussed, but noted that NSA intelligence collection is a matter for other committees.

"I believe our subcommittee is fulfilling its responsibilities in all areas under its jurisdiction," he said.

"You know that you can talk to me directly anytime on the floor," Simmons added, "in our offices or on the phone. I think you will find that you and I agree on many issues, and improved communications can solve most problems."

He then gave his cellphone number.

Lofgren was not and still is not happy. She and other Democrats want full-blown hearings to investigate the NSA activities. Allen, she said, "didn't have any answers."

Parker was a disappointment, Lofgren said, but her appearance was never intended to be a comprehensive look at the program.

Democrats see Simmons as taking orders from higher-up Republicans not to hold hearings.

"Either he's not interested," said Lofgren, "or he doesn't have the stomach to stand up to his committee chairman."

Simmons will not respond.

"He refuses to participate in this story," said Mitchell.

That's the same kind of answer Lofgren says she keeps getting.

"He's unwilling to move on this, and I can't make him do it," she said.

"We're never going to get a hearing."

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