Bush is bracing for new scrutiny

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- President Bush is bracing for what could be an onslaught of investigations by the new Democratic-led Congress by hiring lawyers to fill key White House posts and preparing to play defense on countless document requests and possible subpoenas.

Bush is moving quickly to fill vacancies within his stable of lawyers, though White House officials say there are no plans to drastically expand the legal staff to deal with a flood of oversight.


"No, at this point, no," Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, said recently. "We'll have to see what happens."

Snow rebutted the notion that Bush is casting about for legal advice in the wake of his party's loss of control of the Congress.


"We don't have a war room set up where we're ... dialing the 800 numbers of law firms," he said.

Still, in the days after the elections, the White House announced that Bush had hired two replacements to plug holes in his counsel's office, including one lawyer, Christopher G. Oprison, who is a specialist in handling white-collar investigations. A third hire was securities law specialist Paul R. Eckert, whose duties include dealing with the Office of the Special Counsel. Bush is in the process of hiring a fourth associate counsel, said Emily A. Lawrimore, a White House spokeswoman.

"Obviously, if we do have investigations, we'll have to make sure we have enough people to be prepared to answer questions that come our way," Lawrimore said. "As of right now, I wouldn't say it's anything special."

Republicans close to Bush say any such moves would not come until the White House sees how aggressive Democrats are in trying to pry the lid off the inner workings of the administration.

"They just think it's inevitable that there will be some investigations that will tie up some time and attention," said Charles Black, a strategist with close ties to the White House. But there's no panic in the ranks of Bush's team, he added. "They don't think they have anything to hide."

Bush still must do what he can now -- before Democrats take over the majority in Congress next month -- to prepare, legal specialists say.

"At a time like this, the experienced people in the White House view themselves as in a race they hope to win, of organizing and coordinating their defenses to have them in place in time to slow down or resist oversight before the oversight can get organized," said Charles Tiefer of the University of Baltimore Law School, a former House counsel and veteran of congressional investigations.

People familiar with the counsel's office caution against reading too much into the new additions, saying that Bush has yet to go on a hiring spree akin to President Bill Clinton's when he faced impeachment. But White House officials know of the potential challenges, they said.


"It's certainly not lost on them that there will be more investigative requests and more things for them to respond to, but I don't think that you're going to see any dramatic changes," said Reginald Brown, a former associate in Bush's White House counsel's office who is now in private practice.

Democrats' stated intention to conduct more rigorous oversight of the Bush administration "simply will mean that [White House officials] need a few more people to manage the paper flow," Brown said.

Veterans of investigative battles between the White House and Congress predict that Bush ultimately will need to add staff members -- or at least borrow some from government agencies -- to contend with Democrats with subpoena power on Capitol Hill.

"Like any White House that has to deal with a Congress run by the other party, this White House has to bulk up its staff to deal with the inevitable flood of subpoenas. They're also going to have to coordinate with lots of friends and supporters," said Mark Corallo, a former top Republican aide to the House committee that issued more than 1,000 subpoenas to the Clinton camp.

Corallo and Barbara Comstock, another Republican public-relations executive with broad experience in Hill investigations, are launching a crisis-communications firm to serve officials and corporations who, Corallo said, could end up as "drive-by victims" in a new round of probes.

Snow said the firm is "certainly independent of the White House."


Republican lobbyist David M. Carmen has added an oversight practice to his firm's menu of services, tapping Frank Silbey, a veteran of congressional investigations, to minister to companies and public figures caught in the web of expected probes.

Democrats are reluctant to reveal their investigative plans, but they have made it plain that they want to conduct more oversight of the Bush administration.

It is clear, though, that Democrats will be beefing up their staffs. With control of Congress comes twice as much funding, which will allow Democrats to double their staffs, including hiring new lawyers and investigators to face off with the Bush administration.

Bush will need "people who have experience in responding to subpoenas, overseeing document production and preparing witnesses," said Amy R. Sabrin, who defended several Clinton administration officials during the investigations of the 1990s.

The president might want to launch internal investigations of his own, legal experts and analysts say, to turn up anything untoward before Democrats do. Some suggested that the administration was doing that last month when the Justice Department announced that it would look into the use of information gleaned from the National Security Agency's warrantless domestic surveillance program, an investigation that Bush thwarted earlier by refusing to grant security clearances.

"It's quite common that a White House, anticipating congressional investigations, will prefer to let previously blocked internal administrative investigations go ahead as a preferred alternative way of trying to deprive the upcoming congressional investigation of exciting things to discover," Tiefer said.


An example from recent history was the Reagan administration's Tower Commission, set up to "steal the thunder" of the congressional probe into the Iran-contra scandal, Tiefer added.

White House adviser Black noted that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have been careful to guard executive secrecy, a stance that is unlikely to change in the face of new congressional zeal for information.

"That means if a committee wants to investigate a Cabinet agency, they cooperate. If they're asking to get information about who the president and the vice president are getting advice from and meeting with, the answer is no," he said.

None of which will make life easier for White House lawyers who will be fielding Democrats' requests.

Fulfilling congressional oversight requests is always tedious and time-consuming. When the investigations become partisan, it can be even worse.

"The oversight work was among the most stressful and least-rewarding work in the office," said Bradford A. Berenson, a former counsel in Bush's White House. "When you're playing defense against investigations that are, to one degree or another, politically motivated in an environment where there are very few rules and very little prospect of judicial relief, it can be very frustrating."