When it comes to a Senate investigation into George W. Bush's warrantless spying program, Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe was for it before she was against it before she was for it before she was against it again.
For the White House, the fourth time was a charm. Catching Snowe on a good day, the Bush administration managed to dodge a Senate investigation of its warrantless spying program Tuesday in exchange for agreeing to give regular briefings to a few more lawmakers and maybe supporting legislation that would provide express congressional approval for spying without the warrants that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act now requires.
If that doesn't sound like much of a deal, it isn't. In a moment of unintentional candor, Pat Roberts -- the White House water carrier who serves as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee -- said, "I prefer accommodation over confrontation whenever possible."
As a result of Tuesday's party-line vote, the Senate Intelligence Committee won't investigate whether the president and his aides broke the law or violated the Constitution when they began spying on Americans without warrants. Instead, the committee will form a seven-member subcommittee to receive additional briefings on the program. Translation: The White House once provided semiregular briefings to the chairman and the ranking member of the committee; now it will have to provide briefings to seven members instead.
That doesn't seem like much of a sacrifice, so there must be more, right? Not much. Four members of the committee have proposed legislation that would provide specific congressional authorization for the warrantless spying, at least for a 45-day period, and the Republicans who backed the "accommodation" Tuesday would like you to think that they've forced the White House to sign off on that legislation as part of their deal. But it's clear that the White House hasn't committed to anything just yet. As Republican Sen. Mike DeWine tells Reuters, the White House has agreed to support such legislation only in "broad concept." White House Scott McClellan was heard to say Tuesday that the legislation was an "interesting" idea.
And even if the White House eventually commits to the legislation, it still would fall far short of the existing legal protections with which the president was pretending to comply. While the legislation would limit future warrantless spying to 45-day periods, there's an exception if the attorney general tells the subcommittee that there's good reason to keep spying without getting a warrant.
At least for now, that would be the same attorney general who has been less than candid about the National Security Agency program. Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter said this week that Alberto Gonzales' answers to his committee's questions have been so equivocal that he may need to come back to testify a second time on the program. In the meantime, Specter's committee may provide the last remaining hope for some kind of meaningful investigation into the warrantless spying program. Specter said Tuesday that he may offer legislation cutting off funding for the program if he can't get more answers from the administration otherwise.
For the Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee, that sort of "confrontation" must seem both unnecessary and unseemly in the wake of the deal they've struck. "We are reasserting congressional responsibility and oversight with respect to this program," Snowe said Tuesday.