Opinion Columns & Blogs

Dana Milbank: The congressional Wikidebate

George Will is on vacation. The Washington Post Writers Group is substituting Dana Milbank in his absence.

What occurred on the floor of the People’s House on last week was, quite possibly, the first ever congressional Wikidebate. Lawmakers are privy to all sorts of classified information and confidential briefings about national security, but as they argued about a new spending bill to fund the war in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, they spent a good bit of the afternoon bickering about things they’d seen on the Internet.

“The debate to remove us from Pakistan becomes urgent in light of the Wikileaks expose,” Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, said of the posting of tens of thousands of classified U.S. military documents on a website this week.

“I argue that the revelation of this Wikileaks, you know, thousands and thousands of documents, is evidence that we need to work to continue to build (Pakistan’s) democratic institutions,” Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., countered.

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., argued that “the documents that were published all over the world yesterday remind us that we don’t have any reliable partners; the Afghan government is corrupt and incompetent.”

It was one of those unnerving moments when you realize that our leaders don’t have any better handle on events than the rest of us. Members of Congress send troops to war and spend trillions of dollars of the taxpayers’ (and the Chinese government’s) money — and yet they seemed to base their positions on the Afghanistan War on what they’d read in the newspapers, watched on television or picked up from the Web. Seven years after authorizing an invasion of Iraq in search of phantom weapons of mass destruction, lawmakers are basing policy on the drip, drip, drip of Wikileaks?

As lawmakers engaged in this wikidebate, the only solid conclusion to emerge was that President Obama had lost whatever limited control he had over congressional Democrats. In a rare spectacle, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, David Obey of Wisconsin, announced that he was opposing the war spending bill that he was expected to shepherd to passage on the House floor. “I have the obligation to bring this supplemental before the House to allow the institution to work its will,” Obey said on the floor, “but I also have the obligation to my conscience.”

Obey, like other liberals, was also angered that the White House had issued a veto threat that forced him to remove from the bill funds for education and other domestic projects. The defection by Obey and 101 other liberals forced Democratic leaders to rely on support from Republicans for the war spending bill.

“Yesterday’s revelations in documents published by Wikileaks,” said McGovern, show that “the Pakistan intelligence agency exerts great sway” over militant groups hostile to the United States. That, he said, argued for getting out of Pakistan.

“I share a high level of frustration,” Dreier responded, “with the reports that just came out this past weekend, the Wikileaks report.” But, he said, “these documents have underscored the importance … Unmoved, McGovern said that “in light of all the questions that have been raised” by Wikileaks, “it seems to me that it is inappropriate for us to vote yes on a blank check for this administration to do whatever they want in Afghanistan.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, worried aloud that “some will focus on the information reportedly contained in the many thousands of classified U.S. documents … as justification for this resolution.” She said that would be a “knee-jerk approach to our national security.”

But the knee-jerk accusation didn’t cause Kucinich to buckle. In his closing argument, he invoked WikiLeaks three more times as justification for pulling out of Pakistan.

Conducting national affairs by wiki is inherently tricky. But if members of the House are getting their intelligence briefings from the Internet, surely the erudite and informed statesmen of the Senate know better — don’t they?

As House members attempted to out-wiki one another, the Senate Armed Services Committee was meeting on the other side of the Capitol to question the incoming commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen. James Mattis. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the ranking Republican, got right down to business. “General, thank you again for your service,” he began. “On the issue du jour of the WikiLeaks …”