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Friday, April 23

Congress remains frustrated over Iraq, demands bigger role

By Jon Frandsen | GNS

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration's repeated failure to consult with Congress and answer questions about prewar planning for Iraq may have contributed to some of the serious missteps that have plagued the yearlong occupation, critics charge.

The administration admits no errors and contends it has repeatedly given Congress what it has sought.

But after days of complaints on Capitol Hill this past week that the administration was repeating the same mistakes as it approaches a crucial turning point in Iraq, administration officials appeared to be more forthcoming. At a hearing near the end of the week, they provided far more insight into plans for the June 30 transfer of power to an interim Iraqi government.

``I assume they are getting the message,'' said Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., who has thumped the administration repeatedly over its lack of cooperation.

But Biden, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a supporter of the war in Iraq, and other lawmakers warned that there are multiple concerns about the administration's approach to Iraq and to congressional oversight.

Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., said at Thursday's Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing that the war could be lost because the administration lives in ``a culture of denial'' that simply ignores inconvenient facts.

While the condemnation from Chafee was especially strong, it echoed complaints from members of both parties about the White House's Iraq campaign from the very beginning.

Critics describe a pattern of poor planning, unnecessary secrecy, insulated thinking, self-deception and even arrogance. And opportunities to correct some of those flaws, they say, were lost because attempts by Congress to assert its constitutional role of oversight were seen as interference - not a way to guard against costly errors.

Congressional duty

The Constitution does not give Congress explicit oversight authority over the president and the executive branch. However, courts and constitutional experts agree that Congress has implied oversight powers since it has multiple ways to ``check'' the presidency, such as controlling the government purse strings.

``The basic reality is if you don't have a kind of independent political check and balance, if you don't have somebody looking vigorously, serious mistakes can be made,'' said Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Presidents and Congresses have battled since the dawn of the republic over just how far those powers extend, but Bush has taken a stronger line than most of his predecessors.

``The attitude of the administration is, `You are little gnats buzzing around us and we are just going to ignore you,''' Ornstein said.

Democrats would argue that Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz put that attitude on full display Tuesday when Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., asked for a copy of a critical, internal Pentagon report examining the state of Iraqi security forces - a defining issue in the transfer of power.

``I can assure you I will do my best to see if it is appropriate to release it,'' Wolfowitz said.

Reed exploded.

``We are constitutionally required to supervise the activities of the Department of Defense. We have just as much of a right to get this information as you do, and you seem to be saying we don't,'' Reed said.

Success at stake

The immediate concern, however, is far less about the testy relations between the White House and Congress than how to succeed in Iraq.

Ornstein argues that if Bush had cooperated more closely with Congress before the war, some key mistakes may have been avoided, including disbanding the Iraqi army and ``boycotting virtually every Baathist and preventing them from working or helping.''

The ban on members of Saddam's Baath Party gutted the police force and key bureaucracies, and fueled resentments among thousands of Iraqis. The United States reversed that policy Friday.

Before the administration grew more responsive, Biden chastised the White House for jeopardizing the mission.

``It is outrageous that they are making the same arrogant mistake they made when we held the hearings the first time,'' the senator said about the administration. ``If they had had witnesses show up at our first hearings they might have actually had to answer questions that would cause them to think about the premises upon which they were responding, and on which they based their policy.''

And while Biden and committee Chairman Richard Lugar, R-Ind., were pleasantly surprised at the level of detail provided by administration witnesses, they and others said planning is still far behind.

``No troops, no plan,'' is how Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., described his reaction to the administration's response so far to the continuing strife in Iraq. McCain is demanding that more troops be sent to make the country more secure.

Lugar also noted that many concerns were yet to be fully addressed.

``This is still a dangerous situation and Iraq will have to be more secure for democracy to be successful,'' he said. ``We will have to explore that some more.''