In theater of Congress, not all questions meant to get answers

Associated Press • Mar 17, 2007 at 10:42 AM

WASHINGTON - Just like a Broadway play, congressional hearings have many acts.

There is drama, humor and plenty of jockeying for top billing. Sometimes a "star" witness is called to answer legislators' questions.

But often those doing the asking really covet the bright lights for themselves. It is even more the case when the television cameras are rolling or, like now, when some lawmakers need the exposure for their presidential campaigns.

Some ask plenty of pointed questions, prompting testy exchanges with witnesses. Some ask plenty of leading questions. Some pose no questions at all, preferring the sound of their own voices. And legislators are quick to cut witnesses off when they do not like the answers.

All that was on display when Valerie Plame, the former CIA officer at the center of a political scandal, told her story to Congress.

Democrats asked leading and often repetitive questions Friday. That allowed the glamorous Plame to describe again and again how the leak of her true identity by White House and State Department officials cut short her intelligence career.

But Republicans were not about to let that go unchallenged.

"Shouldn't the CIA have made sure that anyone who knew your name and your work be told of your (covert) status?" asked Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, the top Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

"Would that have been helpful in this case? That would have made it very clear, if anybody leaked it at that point they were violating the law, at least?"

Plame said the CIA goes to "great lengths" to protect its officers, spending lots of money and time and energy doing so. She said some responsibility also falls to the individual, "but it's not a perfect world."

Davis then asked whether she had ever been told she was protected by a federal law that makes it a crime to knowingly disclose a covert agent's identity.

"I'm not a lawyer," she said.

"That's why I asked if they told you. I'm not asking for your interpretation," he shot back.

"No, but I was covert. I did travel overseas on secret missions within the ...," Plame said before Davis interrupted.

"I'm not arguing with that," he said. "What I'm asking is, for purposes of the act - and maybe this just never occurred to you or anybody else at the time - but did anybody say that you were so designated under the act or was this just after it came to pass?"

"No, no one told me that," she said.

When Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., sparred at a hearing over CIA and Defense Department involvement in domestic matters, a role Leahy argued belongs to the FBI, the attorney general had trouble completing a sentence.

"Doesn't this trouble you?" Leahy asked.

"Of course it troubles. The stories, if true, of course would be very troubling," Gonzales replied. "One thing - ," he began.

Leahy pounced. "Are they true?"

"Well, sir, I, I don't know if they're true or not," was Gonzales' reply.

"Have you asked?" Leahy said.

"I don't believe that they're true," the attorney general said.

"Have you asked?" Leahy repeated.

"I don't, I don't, I have not asked personally in terms of whether or not the Department of Defense ...," Gonzales said before Leahy interrupted again.

"But this is going into your normal bailiwick. Why haven't you asked?" the senator pressed.

Gonzales replied that Congress decided that certain agencies have the authority to collect that kind of data. Then he jousted more on the issue with Sens. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and with Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

Days after Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., returned from Iraq and started running for president, she asked no questions of Army Lt. Gen. David Petraeus when he was before the Senate Armed Services Committee on his nomination to be the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

She used the time allotted for questioning to denounce President Bush's policy on Iraq.

By contrast, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a rival for the presidency, did not pass up the chance to prod the general about Bush's decision to send 21,500 additional combat troops to Iraq.

An early supporter of sending in reinforcements, McCain asked more than a dozen questions. Some were worded to get sympathetic answers.

"Suppose we send you over to your new job, general, only we tell you that we can't have, you can't have any additional troops. Can you get your job done?" McCain asked.

"No, sir," Petraeus replied.

"Suppose that we send ... you additional troops, and we tell those troops that, we support you, but we are convinced that you cannot accomplish your mission, and we do not support the mission we are sending you on. What effect does that have on the morale of your troops?" McCain asked.

"Well, it would not be a beneficial effect, sir," Petraeus said.

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