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I Am Jello

04.11.2008 | POLITICS

Read aloud the legislative positions and "accomplishments" of Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, and you might think you're hearing about the career of some boot-licking GOP White House sycophant: collaborator on telecom immunity, strong advocate of Bush's unconstitutional domestic spying efforts, effusive cheerleader for invading Iraq, enthusiast of preventing accountability for any of the nation's most severe intelligence failures. But that's just Jay being Jay.

It can be tempting to feel pity for John Davison Rockefeller IV. The scion of the American oil dynasty and junior senator from West Virginia only ever wanted to be called "Jay." Like the economically depressed coal state he adopted for his home, the nickname does not immediately evoke sterling silver baby spoons, guaranteed admission to Harvard and ten-figure trust funds. The moniker befits the self-image, if not quite the reality, of the black sheep of the Rockefeller clan, its sole Democrat. Jay Rockefeller: easygoing everyman.

But since the 9/11 attacks, "Jay" has become just one of Rockefeller's nicknames. These days the senator is also known as "Jello Jay," "Vichy Democrat No. 1" and the "Senator from AT&T," depending on which outraged Democrat you're talking to. Most of these newer nicknames have their origins in Rockefeller's performance as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Since the FISA drama emerged as the defining battle of the 110th Congress, Rockefeller has become the face of an increasingly passé kind of collaboration. But it isn't just the administration he's cozy with. Rockefeller has deep links with Third Way, a phony progressive pro-corporate think tank with close ties to the telecom industry. Matt Bennett, vice president of Third Way, meets frequently with Rockefeller's legislative aide for military and national security issues to discuss the FISA legislation and has provided talking points in defense of immunity.

But Rockefeller's sins well predate his current alliance with the Bush administration in defense of expanded executive wiretapping powers and retroactive immunity for telecom firms who broke the law. His post-9/11 career as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee has been one of deepening disgrace and epic failure. As Rockefeller returns to Washington from recess to tackle the FISA impasse, it's worth remembering that "Jello Jay" has been a sweet and refrigerated Bush/Cheney-enabling treat for close to seven years.

"Ever since 9/11, the Bush administration has had no better friend on Capitol Hill than Jay Rockefeller," says author and blogger Glenn Greenwald, who has been one of Rockefeller's fiercest and most persistent critics. "In his position as ranking member and then chairman of the Intelligence Committee, he has been continuously notified of the most extreme and lawless actions by the administration, and has either done nothing or actively supported and enabled such lawlessness."

Rockefeller's habit of carrying the heaviest buckets of dirty water for the administration began soon after the 9/11 attacks. As Rockefeller proudly revealed in a November 2005 television appearance, he understood quickly that the Bush administration was determined to use the attacks as a pretext to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein. Did Rockefeller sound the tocsin? Yes, but not to the American people. Instead, Rockefeller packed his bags in January 2002 and visited the capitals of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria, where he shared with officials his insider belief that the war was a fait accompli and told them they might as well get on board. "George Bush had already made up his mind to go to war against Iraq," Rockefeller told "Fox News Sunday" in 2005, explaining his private diplomacy. "That was a predetermined set course which had taken shape shortly after 9/11."

Rockefeller's adventure in stealth personal diplomacy was so brazen and so stupid for so many reasons that even the conservative writer and war-supporter Bill Bennett asked on the National Review blog, "What was Senator Rockefeller doing? What was he thinking? And all this before President Bush even made a public speech about Iraq -- to the U.N. or anyone else."

Like so many Democrats, Rockefeller would eventually claim to have been duped by bad and distorted intelligence. Specifically, Rockefeller blames the conflicting evidence presented in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate -- which he did not read until a full ten months after his unofficial "Get Your War On" Tour of the Middle East.

That the 2002 NIE distorted the truth is an odd claim for Rockefeller to make. In fact the opposite is true. It was Rockefeller who willfully distorted the NIE's conflicting and uncertain threat assessments to make the case for war.

Rockefeller was such an early and spastic booster for war that he has the distinction of being the only senator to actually go beyond the administration's own talking points. While most of his colleagues stuck to well-worn facts about Saddam's old chemical weapons program and vague references to "weapons of mass destruction," Rockefeller repeatedly dropped the "n" word, embracing the most patently absurd of the Iraq threat scenarios.

On Oct. 10, 2002, Rockefeller took to the Senate floor to declare, "There is unmistakable evidence that Saddam Hussein is working aggressively to develop nuclear weapons and will likely have nuclear weapons in the next five years -- and he could have it [sic] earlier … We should also remember that we have always underestimated the progress that Saddam has been able to made [sic] in the development of weapons of mass destruction … I do believe that Iraq poses an imminent threat."

Rockefeller started to care about proof of this imminent threat only once the occupation had gone sour. During his war-drum induced trance, Rockefeller had no patience for people demanding evidence and other such distractions. "To insist on further evidence could put some of our fellow Americans at risk," he declared on the Senate floor. "Can we afford to take that chance? We cannot!"

As Chris Wallace reminded Rockefeller in his November 2005 "Fox News Sunday" appearance, the use of the words "imminent threat" constituted an even more alarmist line than the administration was pushing. When confronted with this fact, Rockefeller hemmed and hawed, giving one of his famously meandering, ungrammatical, and nonsensical nonanswers that leave observers wondering if Rockefeller might not be better suited for an ambassadorship to Samoa.

"[Congress] did not send 150,000 troops or 135,000 troops," said a flustered Rockefeller. "It was [Bush's] decision made probably two days after 9/11 that he was going to invade Iraq. That we did not have a part of [sic]."

Rockefeller's performance in the run-up to war was singularly shameful. But due to his senior position on the Intelligence Committee, he would be given a unique opportunity to partially redeem himself. It is an opportunity he failed to seize. Once the investigations were underway in summer of 2003, Rockefeller talked a good game about intelligence failures leading up to the invasion. But when it came to the more politically sensitive question of whether the administration manipulated the agencies and cherry-picked evidence to hype the case for war, Rockefeller lost enthusiasm. In February 2004, Rockefeller cut a deal with then chairman of the Intelligence Committee Pat Roberts to delay the Phase II investigation until after the 2004 election.

Way after, it turned out. In April of 2005, with no movement yet on Phase II, Rockefeller appeared on Meet the Press with Pat Roberts, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. When host Tim Russert asked Rockefeller if Phase II would ever be completed, the senator responded, "I hope so. Pat and I have agreed to do it. We've shaken hands on it."

Handshake and everything, it took another eight months of no action on Phase II before Rockefeller finally called a press conference to apply some real heat on his Republican colleagues. On Nov. 4, 2005, Rockefeller stood with Carl Levin and Dianne Feinstein in calling for a "thorough and expeditious" Phase II report. "Congress has a fundamental, constitutional responsibility to conduct oversight -- that's what checks and balances are all about," said Rockefeller, "and on this question, we have utterly failed. Now, after 20 months since the committee agreed to undertake Phase II, we are finally going to dig into the serious issues of how this administration used or misused intelligence in making the case for going to war."

When an incomplete draft was finally published on May 25, 2007, Phase II concluded that there was no evidence that the Iraqi government was producing WMD or that it had any ties to Al Qaeda. Appropriately enough, one of the sections not publicly released at the time dealt with the statements of U.S. government leaders made during the run-up to the war. In any such review, no politician would look as ridiculous or as derelict in his duty as Jay Rockefeller.

* * * *

Jay Rockefeller is a longtime supporter of a flag burning amendment to the Constitution, but he has shown little enthusiasm for absolutism when it comes to protecting the rights guaranteed by that document. A supporter of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which stripped detainees of habeas corpus, Rockefeller's enthusiasm has lately been reserved for protecting the telecoms, despite the fundamental constitutional principles at stake in the administration's illegal spying program. "Giving ordinary Americans their day in court against the telecoms is the right thing to do. Telecom companies violated the law in collaborating with the dragnet surveillance of millions of ordinary Americans, and it is a crime against justice to simply let them off the hook," says Rebecca Jeschke of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

His current position on immunity is of a post-9/11 piece. Rockefeller was among a handful of congressional leaders briefed by Dick Cheney in 2003 regarding the extra-legal monitoring of suspected terrorist communications in the United States. He understood immediately that the actions, ordered under the "Terrorist Surveillance Program," were illegal. But restricted from consulting his staff on the matter, Rockefeller professed an inability to judge the merits of the program. His response was to handwrite a letter to the vice president that was clearly intended as an ass-covering measure in the event the program ever came to light. (Which it did when the New York Times broke the story in December 2005.) In his brief memo to Cheney, Rockefeller expresses his concerns lightly, privately and almost apologetically. Like Phil Hartman's old "Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer" character on Saturday Night Live, Rockefeller professes confusion when confronted by the administration's extra-legal phone-tapping ways.

"As you know, I am neither a technician nor an attorney," writes Rockefeller with self-deprecation before registering a vague "concern regarding the direction the administration is moving with regard to security, technology and surveillance."

  Rockefeller released the letter to the media only after the Times story sparked a national uproar. His colleagues on the House and Senate Intelligence committees were particularly surprised at Rockefeller's sudden attempts to distance himself from the program. Rockefeller not only absorbed the details of the warrantless wire-tapping program during Cheney's roundtable seminars, he actively supported them. Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, who was then chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told the Times after Rockefeller's release of his letter to Cheney that he had "no recollection of Senator Rockefeller objecting to the program at the many briefings he and I attended together … On many occasions, Senator Rockefeller expressed to the vice president his vocal support for the program; his most recent expression of support was only two weeks ago." Another participant in those meetings told the Weekly Standard: "It was [the Democrats'] unanimous recommendation that we continue the program and that we not seek legislative authorization. Jay Rockefeller was sitting at the table."

Even after the cat escaped the bag, Rockefeller continued to bet wrong. Once the FISA debate exploded, he hitched his name and reputation to retroactive immunity for the telecoms. In June 2007, Rockefeller, now chair of his committee, personally assured Dick Cheney that he would work with the administration on revising FISA to the administration's liking, providing the committee first gained access to secret documentation of the warrantless eavesdropping. Days after getting his peek at the select record, Rockefeller moved forward with a Senate bill guaranteeing immunity and broader executive spying powers. His Democratic colleagues Bill Nelson, Russ Feingold, Chris Dodd and Ron Wyden dissented strongly, but on Feb. 12 the Cheney/Rockefeller bill passed the Senate 68-29.

What happened next is well known and placed Rockefeller into the tightest dunce-cap corner of his post-9/11 political career. On March 14, the House passed a FISA bill sans immunity that constituted a hard rebuke to the administration -- and Jay Rockefeller. It wasn't just the liberal wing of his party breaking with him. Even the most pro-Bush, conservative Blue Dogs rejected the Rockefeller-Cheney bill. "A more powerful repudiation by his own party is difficult to imagine," says Glenn Greenwald.

What is the source of Rockefeller's lonely commitment to the cause of retroactive immunity? Much has been made of several large contributions to his coffers by AT&T and Verizon. Rockefeller refuses to bankroll his campaigns with his fortune, relying instead on corporate cash like a "normal" senator. This otherwise admirable equivalent of a rich kid putting himself through school by working down at the docks has opened him up to sensible charges of being bought and paid-for.

Or it could be that Rockefeller's position is just the natural result of a genuine, wrongheaded and wholly pathetic desire to play ball with the Bush administration and get along with his Republican friends in the Senate. Jay Rockefeller is a famously easygoing guy, and the 71-year-old will be no doubt be popular in whatever Florida retirement community he chooses. But in the meantime, he embodies every reason that the public's support of Congress trails one of the least popular presidents in American history.

The article first appeared on AlterNet.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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