Sen. Rockefeller Calls for Changes to Intelligence Briefings

In January, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) will be the new chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Rockefeller would like intelligence briefings to be more comprehensive and involve more members of Congress. Rockefeller speaks with Steve Inskeep about his ideas.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

When it comes to subjects like Iraq, Senator Jay Rockefeller has seen more U.S. intelligence reports than most people - though much fewer than he'd like.

Senator JAY ROCKEFELLER (Democrat, West Virginia): It's one thing to be told by the administration that our intelligence says. It's another thing to actually see the intelligence so that we can judge for ourself.

INSKEEP: Which the West Virginia Democrat wants to do when his party takes over Congress early next year. Rockefeller will hold a sensitive job. He will be chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, overseeing secretive agencies that lead the war on terror. The Democrat wants those agencies to be less secretive with Congress, but he says he is not completely opposed to controversial programs like eavesdropping without court permission.

Sen. ROCKEFELLER: I would agree that that program has produced valuable information, and not everybody wants to hear that, but it is true. The trick is not just does it produce intelligence, but does it do it in a legal, responsible and ethical way? And that is the balance which I think has gone too far, too aggressively on the part of the administration, and which we in the next Congress are going to have to try to sort out.

INSKEEP: Many of your colleagues in the Democratic Party - not to mention some Republicans - have been deeply skeptical of the whole program.

Sen. ROCKEFELLER: Well, I understand that, Steve, but it - you see, that's a little bit like interrogation in any form. Interrogation can yield very significant results, so to say you can't do any listening or any interrogation could be dangerous for the country. On the other hand, doing it in the way that it has been done in the past is also dangerous to the country in terms of civil liberties.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that separate issue of interrogation. Of course, you in the Senate and the House have legislated on this just very recently and adjusted the rules somewhat having to do with harsh interrogations. Do you believe that torture - or what you would define as torture - has produced useful information?

Sen. ROCKEFELLER: You're presuming torture, and all can answer to you is that torture often can produce very specifically bad intelligence. But to simply say in a blanket statement that interrogation is of no use to this country or its national security I think is a little bit too easy. It's satisfying for some. But I think it's a little bit too easy, because you can learn about things which you really need to know about and which you could otherwise not know about.

INSKEEP: You think that there are techniques that are beyond ordinary police questioning but short of torture that can be employed legally. Is that what you're saying?

Sen. ROCKEFELLER: That's exactly what I am saying. And there's the whole debate about whether very difficult interrogation produces results from certain kinds of people. But on a balanced net basis, I think you don't want to go that direction. You want to have what I would call reasonable techniques, which are not inhumane, which are not cruel. You have to follow the laws of the world and of the nation.

INSKEEP: When it comes to questions like warrantless wiretapping or harsh questioning, do you think you're really that far apart from the Bush administration?

Sen. ROCKEFELLER: I do. I was one of the two people in the Senate who was briefed into that program at a very...

INSKEEP: The warrantless wiretapping, yeah.

Sen. ROCKEFELLER: ...at a very early stage, and I didn't like what I heard. And, you know, you don't have a lawyer with you. I'm not a lawyer. You can't discuss it with anybody on your staff - either in your personal staff or more importantly, on your intelligence committee staff. You can't discuss anything that you've heard with anybody. I can't even discuss it with the chairman of the committee, Pat Roberts. It's a stupid situation, Steve.

And it's one we have to get ourselves out of. And the way you do that is to brief more members of the Senate and House - the intelligence committees - into the program so that they know exactly what's going on.

I mean, the White House was always saying that we've briefed the Congress. And I would look at Pat Roberts and we'd roll our eyes, because that means that we had been briefed, but nobody else had been, except one Democrat and one Republican in the House. It's a lousy way to attend to the national security.

INSKEEP: Is that your biggest difference with the administration right now, is how much Congress is allowed to know and how much Congress is allowed to question and participate?

Sen. ROCKEFELLER: That is a big difference. The questioning, it's like they'll only tell you what they want you to know. And I'm sorry, but this administration has carried that to extremes that I have never been familiar with before, in intelligence or any other subject. We have to have oversight so that we can call them up short when they're doing which we think is wrong. And right now, we think some things they're doing may be wrong.

INSKEEP: Well, Senator Rockefeller, thanks for talking with us. And I hope you enjoy your Thanksgiving.

Sen. ROCKEFELLER: Thank you. Same to you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Then come January, Senator Rockefeller - Jay Rockefeller - will be the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

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