A Day in the Life of the Judiciary Committee

To offer a little more detail on my last post... The Associated Press last night reported that a frustrated Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) reluctantly agreed to a deal yesterday with the White House that allows telephone company executives to avoid for the moment being subpoenaed to discuss whatever role they may have played in the latest domestic surveillance controversy. The White House, the AP reported, agreed to try to work with Sen. Specter on legislation that would bring the other two branches a little closer to the action in the domestic spying game. No promises, however.

Meanwhile, Commitee Democrats are furious at the White House for another reason. Earlier Tuesday, during a hearing into the government's professed interest in prosecuting journalists for publishing classified information, a Justice Department official, Deputy U.S. Attorney Matthew W. Friedrick, was so unforthcoming when questioned even by Republican senators that he prompted ranking Committee Democrat Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) to tell him: "You're basically taking what would be called a testifying Fifth Amendment. You should be ashamed of yourself, or your superiors should be ashamed of themselves."

When it comes to the telephone company executives, it's fairly clear that the Committee caved to pressure from the White House, from the Vice President in particular, who, according to Reuters, informed Sen. Specter that the telephone company executives would not be able to answer questions anyway due to national security concerns. "If I thought I could have done better today by pushing the telephone companies, I would have," Specter said later.

Ponder this scenario for a moment. The White House tells Congress that private citizens cannot be called to testify under oath before the Congress-- and the Senate Judiciary Committee doesn't have the votes to say "thanks but no thanks" to that condescending directive. It's no wonder that Sen. Leahy at one point Tuesday said only half-in-jest: "Why don't we just recess for the rest of the year? Vice President Cheney will just tell the nation what laws we'll have."

When it comes to the use of the 1917 Espionage Act to go after journalists who legally receive classified information from sources, the Administration was no more respectful or cooperative. The White House and Justice Department are noodling over an enormous expansion of the scope of the Act, which by most reasonable interpretations did not contemplate in its scope the prosecution of journalists. Congress can shortcut this brazen effort by passing legislation that would clarify the matter-- and, presumably, given the first amendment, protect journalists. Did anything that happened today at the Committee make you think that's likely on the horizon? Didn't think so.

By  |  June 7, 2006; 7:00 AM ET
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Does the First Amendment in its speech clauses confer on the press or journalists greater rights than others? If not, wouldn't there be a discriminatory aspect to legislation providing a "shield" to protect journalists (however that term may be defined)?

Posted by: Shag from Brookline | June 7, 2006 08:14 AM

Sen. Specter must pine for the day when a future President signs the Congressional Emancipation Proclamation freeing him and his brethren to function as full members of Congress, in the manner envisioned by the U.S. Constitution. He apparently does not realize that he holds the keys to the shackles that bind him.

Posted by: MC | June 7, 2006 07:02 PM

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