President Barack Obama's defense to Democratic senators complaining about how little his administration has told Congress about the legal justifications for his drone policy: Dick Cheney was worse.
That's part of what two senators in the room recounted of Obama's response when, near the outset of his closed-door session with the Senate Democratic conference on Tuesday, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) confronted the president over the administration's refusal for two years to show congressional intelligence committees Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel memos justifying the use of lethal force against American terror suspects abroad.
Obama recently allowed members of those panels to see the memos, but only after senators in both parties threatened to hold up the confirmation of John Brennan as Central Intelligence Agency director. Brennan was confirmed last week, but lawmakers not on one of the intelligence panels are still being denied access to the memos and several are steamed over being frozen out.
In response to Rockefeller's critique, Obama said he's not involved in drafting such memos, the senators told POLITICO. He also tried to assure his former colleagues that his administration is more open to oversight than that of President George W. Bush, whom many Democratic senators attacked for secrecy and for expanding executive power in the national security realm.
"This is not Dick Cheney we're talking about here," he said, according to Democratic senators who asked not to be named discussing the private meeting.
Two Obama administration officials, who asked not to be named, confirmed Rockefeller raised the drone oversight issue with the president at the session. The White House had no comment on Obama's alleged reference to the former vice president.
While Obama defended his handling of the issue, he told his former Senate colleagues he understood their concerns about being left out of the loop on such sensitive decisions, senators said. The president noted that he would have "probably objected" over the White House's handling of this issue if he were still a senator, they said. But, according to the sources, he noted his viewpoint changed now that he occupies the Oval Office -- not a room in a Senate office building.
Asked about the exchange on Wednesday, Rockefeller would only say: "I'll leave it where it is."
However, Rockefeller hasn't been shy about his views on the issue. During a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing Tuesday just before the meeting with Obama, the senior senator from West Virginia railed against the administration's secrecy and publicly charged that it amounted to a return to the Bush approach.
"It's a terrible situation," a clearly irritated Rockefeller said during the annual hearing focusing on global threats to the U.S.
"What happened over the last couple of weeks is a threat, is a threat to trust between us and you, us towards you and you towards us," Rockefeller told Brennan and other administration witnesses. "What basically happened was that we were given certain things which we requested, primarily because [Brennan was] up for confirmation....Had we not been given those things, some of those things which we requested, the confirmation would not have had the votes."
Rockefeller also charged that after Brennan was confirmed, the administration clammed up again and "went directly back to the way they were from 2001-2 to 2007."
As for the legal memos shared after two years of requests, Rockefeller said there was "nothing in them which is a threat to anybody." He also complained bitterly about the administration initially denying Senate staffers cleared to see highly classified information access to the memos and about someone sent in to watch him and an aide when they finally got to look at some of the documents in a secure room.
"There was a minder who was sent in. I was unaware that that person was going to have to be there. It was an insult to me," Rockefeller said. "And I kicked the person out. He said, 'My orders are I have to be here. And I said something else.'"
Rockefeller raised his concerns about the "minder" again directly with Obama during the Tuesday afternoon caucus meeting, one White House official said.
At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday morning, Chairman Patrick Leahy suggested he'd recently raised the issue with the president. The Vermont Democrat also reiterated his threat to subpoena one of the classified legal memos if the White House won't fork it over. Leahy voted against Brennan's confirmation in what the Judiciary Committee chairman said was a protest over the administration's refusal to show the relevant memos to his committee, which oversees the Justice Department.
"Every time I asked the question of various people, the attorney general, the president and others, it's always somebody else's department," Leahy said. "This is something we're very serious about -- one [opinion] especially this committee may end up subpoenaing if we can't get it."
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