Henry Waxman knows a thing or two about the Constitution, and the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee displayed that knowledge at the opening of Friday’s extraordinary morning of testimony by outed CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson.
While appropriate attention will be paid to the remarks by the woman whose identity was exposed in a pattern of leaks that appears to have been coordinated by Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, what Waxman said at the opening of the hearing sent the essential message.
“It’s not our job to determine criminal culpability,” the congressman said of the committee he heads, “but it is out job to determine what went wrong and insist on accountability.”
The founders established parallel tracks for dealing with government wrongdoing.
A judicial process has already begun to hold members of the administration to account for violating laws protecting the identity of Central Intelligence Agency operatives by outing Plame in an apparent attempt to harm her husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson. Wilson had earned the administration’s wrath by revealing evidence of manipulation of intelligence by an administration that was attempted to convince Congress to authorize an attack on Iraq.
But the essential process for dealing with government wrongdoing is that established in the Constitution as the authority of Congress to examine and sanction presidents, vice presidents and their aides.
The legislative branch of the federal government is fully empowered to check and balance the executive branch, especially in times of war and national crisis. Those checks and balances begin to be applied when Congressional committees open investigations and when the elected representatives of the people begin to demand accountability.
Plame left no doubt that wrongdoing occurred. “My name and identity were carelessly and recklessly abused by senior official in White House and State Department,” she testified. “I could no longer perform the work for which I had been highly trained.”
As Massachusetts Congressman John Lynch explained before initiating his questions, the pattern of leaks suggested to him that members of the administration engaged in “a deliberate attempt to destroy your status as a covert agent.”
Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich got to the heart of the matter, asking rhetorically: “Why? Why did this happen to you? Was it an unintentional mistake or part of a wider pattern.”