WASHINGTON – Given the partisan attacks on President Bush over the war in Iraq, one would think that any declassified information made available to Congress would be high on members’ summer reading lists.
Not so, say sources, who aren’t surprised that before summer recess, only a small fraction of lawmakers bothered to check out some 19 binders of recently released CIA documents, which include 10,000 pages of intelligence used to back up the war in Iraq.
“We strive as a conference to provide information in a timely and consistent manner,” said House Republican Caucus spokesman Greg Crist, who added that often, members-only briefings will be sparsely attended. “What’s unfortunate is when members and opponents of the administration try to politicize this without having the facts.”
The administration made the massive cache of information available to the intelligence committees in July amid a firestorm over the president’s claim during his January State of the Union address that Iraq tried to purchase uranium (search) from Africa -- a claim that turned out to be based on erroneous intelligence.
In an unprecedented move, the House Intelligence Committee (search) made the documents available to members, but sources acknowledge that by the end of the month, less than two dozen members had actually taken advantage of the opportunity.
Meanwhile, the administration continues to take hits from Democrats over whether it misled the public on the existence of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.
But several Capitol Hill staffers said they are confident in their members’ ability to gather information, and dismissed the portrayal of Democrats running off half-cocked.
For example, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a 2004 presidential contender, has attacked Bush’s handling of the war, but his staff insists he does more than just read reports.
“He is always someone who seeks out the information on his own before making comments on national security issues,” said Kerry campaign spokeswoman Kelley Benander, pointing to private meetings with Cabinet secretaries and classified briefings.
Benander said she doesn't know if Kerry or his staff had gone through the 10,000 pages of intelligence made available in July.
“He picks up the phone and calls people when he wants to know what’s going on,” she said.
Todd Young, president of DecisionMakers, Inc., (search) a political marketing and lobbying firm, said the lack of reading is no surprise.
“I’m sensing, certainly, in my neck of the woods, a growing cynicism at the grassroots level about lawmakers criticizing things they don’t understand,” said Young, who also works for the Southeastern Legal Foundation, a conservative think tank.
“In this day and age there is no excuse not to be informed,” he said. “They might not have the time to read 10,000 pages, but they have the responsibility of getting the best information available.”
One Washington, D.C., policy expert who did not want to be named said as the federal bureaucracy grows, members of Congress are unable to keep up with myriad issues they are expected to vote on, and rely more and more on staff. In some cases, he said, lawmakers are only as informed as the staff around them.
“I don’t want to burn any bridges, but a lot of them don’t seem to understand the programs,” said the policy expert, whose area of expertise is the federal budget.
“Even if the staff provides them good detail, most members of Congress are given a three-by-five note card before a vote, with a summary of the bill and how they should vote. That’s certainly a problem.”
One lobbyist who represented a central Asian country post-Sept. 11 said she was surprised at the level of ignorance dealing with nations directly involved in the war on terror.
“I found that on both sides of the aisle, frankly, they knew very little about the country I was representing,” she said, adding that she was not surprised to hear that most members weren’t boning up on available intelligence information on summer break. “It’s my experience that they fail to read much at all.”
But one former congressman said no lawmaker would have the time to read every single piece of information that crossed his or her desk, and there is nothing wrong with maintaining a competent staff to brief lawmakers on what they can’t absorb themselves.
“That’s not what you are paid to do, read like a librarian. You are paid to have a good staff to read and prepare you,” said former Georgia Republican Rep. Bob Barr, who was known for personally scrutinizing the full text of bills and issues he debated on the floor.
Barr admitted that members often ignore mounds of information on their way to make a political statement in front of the cameras.
“Very few members learn the issue or read the relevant information before they go out and comment on it,” he said.
David DeMartino, spokesman for Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., who is raising the possibility of an independent panel to sift through the available intelligence, said those who criticize lawmakers for not reading the binders are merely trying to take the heat off the administration.
“You can’t have 100 senators and 435 members of the House poring through 10,000 pages of documents -- you have staff to pore through it and present the relevant information to the members,” Nelson said. “People who say otherwise are just making excuses.”