WASHINGTON, Feb. 8 (UPI) -- A powerful House committee chairman has blasted the Congressional Research Service for bias in two reports it produced on the National Security Agency's program of warrantless counter-terrorist surveillance.
Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., the chairman of the House Permanent Select on Intelligence, said both reports were based on speculation about the program, and "clearly advocated and supported a specific position with respect to the legal issues" raised by it.
In two blistering letters to the service's director, Hoekstra complained about an analysis of the administration's legal argument for the president's authority to conduct the program; and about a subsequent report on the legality of the notification process the administration used in briefing Congress about it.
The reports questioned the legal reasoning the administration has employed to justify both the program and the way that only a handful of senior lawmakers from both parties were briefed on it.
Both were "flawed and obviously incomplete ... seemingly intended to advocate the erroneous conclusion that the president did not comply with the relevant law," wrote Hoekstra, who said Tuesday he had received no response as yet.
Hoekstra told United Press International in an interview that he wrote the letters after being approached by people in his congressional district who had seen the reports online or learned about them from the news media.
"The plain message people were getting was that 'The president broke the law,'" he said.
"That is wrong. It requires a strong answer."
Calls to the CRS director's office were referred to the press office for the Library of Congress, of which the service is a part. The office did not respond to a written request for comment or interview.
CRS insiders say it is not unusual for members of congress to write or call if they disagree with the conclusion of particular report, and point out that there is a careful, multi-level review process every analyst's work goes through before it is published.
"There is a very extensive review process for all that material and management should and does stand behind it," said Dennis Roth, president of the Congressional Research Employees' Association, a labor union that represents the service's staff.
Roth said criticism from both sides of the aisle, and from supporters of the institutional prerogatives of different ends of Pennsylvania Ave., was inevitable, given the intensity of partisan disputes on Capitol Hill and the way that everything in Washington is viewed through a political lens.
"Any time you are putting out even-handed, objective, rigorous material, someone is going to find fault with it ... It comes with the territory. You have to deal with it and move on," he told UPI.
Supporters of the CRS like Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists pointed out that arguments from the report on congressional notification had been echoed by GOP Senators Mike DeWine of Ohio and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania during questioning of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on the program Monday.
DeWine noted that the administration had briefed only the so-called Gang of Eight -- the chairmen and ranking members of the intelligence committees and the majority and minority leaders from both chambers. But he said the statute which allowed the administration to limit briefings in this way applied only to covert actions, and not to surveillance programs.
"We all have a great deal of respect for these eight people," DeWine said. "They're leaders of the Congress. But there's no statutory authority for this group, other than the section that has to do with covert operation, and this (program) is not a covert operation as defined in this specific section."
"I guess I'm just kind of a strict constructionist, kind of a conservative guy, and that's how I read the statute," DeWine finished.
Responding to the release this week of Hoekstra's letters, two senior Democrats involved in intelligence oversight wrote to the CRS Tuesday, rejecting the charges of bias.
Writing that they sought to "correct the record," Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Jane Harman, both of California and both members of their respective chambers' intelligence committees, wrote that they found the two documents "very helpful in conducting our oversight responsibilities."
One of the reports was "one of the most well-reasoned and detailed analysis of the president's warrantless surveillance program to date," they wrote.
Hoekstra told UPI that he was a supporter of CRS, but that these two reports were marked by "weak reasoning and incomplete analysis," and were "not of the quality that I expect from (the service) and usually characterizes their work."
He said one of the reports had "cut some obvious corners on a very complex issue," and "didn't even review the opposing arguments."
He added he was perplexed that the reports were produced at all, given that the details of the program remain highly classified.
"How can you write a report about something that starts by saying you don't know what it is?" he said, referring to caveats in the reports acknowledging that the analysts who wrote them were relying on limited publicly available information.
The service is bound by its rules to respond to congressional requests, but Hoekstra said that didn't mean it was bound to take a position.
"One of the hardest things any politician -- or bureaucrat or expert -- can ever say is 'I don't know.' But it would have been the right thing to say in this case."
But Feinstein and Harman argued that the paucity of publicly available data about the program made it more important, not less, that CRS work on it.
"Analyses provided by CRS have been especially informative given the executive branch's unwillingness to provide information to the Congress or to the American public as is appropriate," they wrote.
Some staff at the service and at government watchdog groups fretted that Hoekstra's criticisms would have a chilling effect on the willingness of CRS analysts to tackle tough issues in a rigorous way.
In his second letter, Hoekstra noted that one of the reports at issue was written by Alfred Cumming, an intelligence oversight veteran and former Democratic staff director of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. He said this raised questions about whether it "was truly non-partisan."
Cumming was unavailable for comment, but colleagues pointed out that the CRS -- like the Government Accountability Office -- employs many former congressional staffers.
"They have the right experience," said Louis Fisher, a senior constitutional affairs analyst with the service. "Anyone who works on the hill is likely to work with one party or another."
The Washington Times first identified Cumming as a Democrat -- revealing his prior employment and donations to the Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign. Hoekstra footnoted that article in his letter as his source for the questions about the non-partisan character of Cumming's report.
"That has had a really had a big impact," Fisher said, "Everyone is wondering if their political donations will end up in the newspaper if they write something that upsets someone."
CRS Director Daniel Mulhollan wrote to the Times after they published the report about Cumming.
"At the CRS, employees' personal political views or previous employment are not permitted to intrude into their nonpartisan work," he wrote, adding that "such considerations played no part" in either of the reports.
"I must strongly object," he concluded, "to the assertion that Mr. Cumming's personal support for a political candidate or his former work in any way influenced the objectivity of his analysis."
Citing recent reports about efforts to silence government scientists on the subject of global warming, Beth Daly, of the watchdog group the Project on Government Oversight, said Hoekstra's letters were part of a Republican "campaign against expertise."
"These complaints," she told UPI, "are part of their campaign against accurate information, against science."
She accused CRS management of allowing a "culture of fear and intimidation" to develop at the service.
For example, veterans of the service say that taking positions -- which may be unpopular with one side or the other in any debate -- is essential to their work.
"If we err on the side of caution at every turn, we risk legitimate and much more serious criticism that our products lack analytical rigor, interest and value," wrote, Fisher, in a memo to Director Mulhollan last month which Daly's group published on their Web site.
CRS material has always had to be rigorous, objective, nonpartisan and free from bias.
But Fisher said that recently, a new term had crept into the vocabulary of CRS management: neutrality.
"For 33 years, I wrote for the CRS and elsewhere, I testified, I spoke ... Every single time I took positions on issues and there was never a problem with it," he told UPI.
"The implication of neutrality is that you don't come down on one side or the other. That is not what I have done. When the facts are on one side of the argument, we need to say so."
But Fisher said that analysts now felt they were "at the mercy of supervisors who are free to act subjectively, capriciously and punitively."
In his letters, Hoekstra asked the service's Director Daniel Mulhollan for "immediate action on your part to ensure that CRS truly provides 'comprehensive and reliable' legislative research that is 'free of partisan or other bias,'" as required by the service's rules.
The Congressional Research Service, or CRS, is part of the Library of Congress. A non-partisan research institute for members of Congress, its staff draft memoranda and briefing papers on request, covering a huge range of fields of policy or legislative interest -- from budget deficits to intellectual property law.