House Holds Special Meeting on FBI Office Raid
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Melissa Block.
It's been 10 days since the FBI raided the office of a congressman and the furor on Capitol Hill is showing no signs of dying down. President Bush has ordered the records seized in that raid sealed for a 45-day cooling off period. But today, the House Judiciary Committee showed it's still angry. It held a hearing on the matter and the direction was clear from the starting question, did the Saturday night raid of Congress trample the Constitution?
NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.
ARI SHAPIRO reporting:
You know things have gotten strange in Washington when a Republican suggests impeaching President Bush's very Republican attorney general, Alberto Gonzales. But that's exactly what Republican California Congressman Darryl Issa suggested this morning.
Representative DARRYL ISSA (Republican, California): We have the power to impeach the attorney general. Now, I'm not sure that articles of impeachment are going to come out today. I think we're a couple shakes short of a quorum for that purpose. Although I suspect members would quickly be here if it was brought by the chair.
SHAPIRO: What got Issa so upset, along with the rest of the House Judiciary Committee, was a nighttime raid on the office of a Democratic congressman who's accused of taking bribes. The target was Congressman William Jefferson of Louisiana. It was the first such raid in the history of Congress. But everyone at today's hearing said it's no longer about Jefferson's case.
Louis Gohmert is a Republican from Texas.
Representative LOUIS GOHMERT (Republican, Texas): Some people have said, you guys are just defending Jefferson. And I agree if they're talking about Thomas Jefferson.
SHAPIRO: Gohmert was backed up by Bruce Fein, who's worked in the Justice Department and in Congress. He said the White House has undermined the founding principle of checks and balances, which prevents one branch of government from usurping the authority of another.
Mr. BRUCE FEIN (U.S. Justice Department): Checks and balances are every bit as indispensable to our civil liberties as the Bill of Rights. And yet, the Bush administration has been bent on a scheme for years of reducing Congress to - akin to an extra in a Cecil B. DeMille political extravaganza.
SHAPIRO: His argument goes like this, FBI agents could have retrieved money or stolen goods or even a dead body from a congressman's office. But instead, they took boxes of papers and a computer hard drive. Fein says that violates the speech and debate clause, which prevents the Executive Branch from infringing on congressional speech.
Mr. FINE: You have to read every file to know whether or not it identifies something in the search warrant. And that inescapably means, when you're searching a legislative office, you must come across speech- or debate-protected materials.
SHAPIRO: The Justice Department maintains it did not violate the Speech and Debate clause in the raid. In court filings submitted today, the government offers to let Congressman Jefferson review copies of all the seized documents before they're handed over to prosecutors.
At the House hearing, at least one Democrat, Maryland's Chris Van Hollen, found it a little surreal that this was the issue that finally spurred the House Judiciary Committee to resist what he called executive overreaching, listing several examples.
Representative CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (Democrat, Maryland): The Torture Memorandum, detainees, enemy combatants signing statements, domestic surveillance, data mining operations. So again, I'm pleased that we're having oversight on this issue, but I think there's so many other issues important to the American people that demand greater oversight.
SHAPIRO: This is not the end of Congress' involvement with the matter. Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, who called today's hearing, said he'll draft legislation to protect congressional papers. And he said he plans to hold more hearings on the subject.
Representative JAMES SENSENBRENNER (Democrat, Wisconsin): I want to have Attorney General Gonzales and FBI director Muller up here to tell us how they reached the conclusion that they did. Because I think all of you have said that reaching that conclusion is profoundly disturbing.
SHAPIRO: Attorney General Gonzales has defended the search. According to published reports, he considered resigning his post rather than return the seized materials. When asked about that possibility today, Congressman Issa used an earthier version of the expression, don't let the door hit you on the way out.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
BLOCK: Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert is playing a key role in the criticism of the FBI's raid. You can learn more about that in the Watching Washington column at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.