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Congress Is Acting Like the "Imperial" Branch

Wall Street Journal Editorial

Let's hope that the next time some Beltway potentate bemoans the "Imperial Presidency," everyone starts hooting with laughter. What we're watching this week is the Lilliputians on Capitol Hill tying down a Bush Administration that increasingly looks like Gulliver.

Over in the House, Republicans are preparing to block the Dubai port management investment as a political sacrifice to Democratic criticism. This even before the new 45-day review requested by the company is even two weeks old. Let's hope the world's investors conclude that this is a craven, one-time political surrender, rather than the start of an attempt to politicize every foreign investment in America that can be linked to "national security." If it's the latter, we're all in for some heavy economic weather, and Republicans won't believe how low their approval ratings can go.

At least this rout can be attributed to GOP panic in the face of lousy poll numbers and a company owned by Arabs. Less explicable is this week's White House mugging by Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee over warrantless wiretaps of al Qaeda by the National Security Agency. On this one, Republicans were winning, the polls showed public support, and everyone outside the fever swamps had dropped their "impeachment" fantasies.

Nonetheless, a couple of GOP Senators forced the White House into conceding more Congressional oversight of wartime intelligence programs. Olympia Snowe of Maine and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska vowed to join Democrats in voting for a full-scale Senate probe of the NSA wiretaps unless President Gulliver bent to their wishes. Such a vote would have humiliated their Chairman, Kansas Republican Pat Roberts, at a minimum. But it would also have risked exposing intelligence sources and methods in a way that could have made the wiretap program less effective, if not entirely worthless.

Faced with this ultimatum from Lilliput, the White House agreed to let the Senate, and presumably also the House, set up a new subcommittee to oversee the NSA program. That means seven more Senators (and more in the House) will at any one time have to be briefed on the program, in addition to the eight Members of Congress who already are. Given committee rotation, this means dozens of more tight-lipped Members will have access to the details of one of the country's most highly classified programs. Of course, none of them will ever leak.

It's true that Mr. Bush at least prevented any expansion of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), or any further intrusion by the courts into the President's war-fighting power. But the White House did concede to bring the warrantless wiretaps under the current FISA process after 45 days at the discretion of the Attorney General. And rest assured that the pressure from Congress will be to prod Alberto Gonzales to move every such search under the FISA court's purview.

We'd be less critical of this concession if Congress gave any indication that, having won this new power, it will behave more responsibly. But Congress is by definition a committee with diffuse responsibility and a penchant for running for cover in a storm. That's what happened when the NSA wiretap story first leaked, and Senate Democrat Jay Rockefeller immediately joined the blame game even though he'd been briefed on the program for years as Vice Chairman of the Intelligence Committee.

Expanding the list of Senators who oversee the program is likely to make every individual even less accountable if something does leak, or if there is an intelligence screwup. We'll know that's the case if Mr. Rockefeller names Michigan Democrat Carl Levin to the new subcommittee, even though he has harassed and undermined the Bush Administration at every turn over the last four years. He has single-handedly blocked numerous Presidential appointees from confirmation, including the general counsel nominee for the new Director of National Intelligence office. Mr. Bush finally had to make Benjamin Powell a recess appointment.

We appreciate that a President with a 40% approval rating has to pick his fights carefully, though we think he could have won this one had the Senate voted for a wiretap probe. Far less defensible are those Senators who are taking advantage of Mr. Bush's weakened political state to grab more power, though not real responsibility, for themselves. Mr. Hagel has made it clear to everyone that he thinks he deserves to be President, but he ought to run and get elected before he starts behaving like he already is.

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