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Next intelligence challenge: Congress itself
by Lawrence M. O'Rourke
McClatchy Newspapers


January 01, 2005

Washington - The expertise, political ties, clout and ego of many members of the House may be tossed into turmoil as congressional Republican leaders prepare this weekend to shake up Capitol Hill's oversight of the U.S. intelligence system.

"Reorganization will be very tough on some House members. They'll have to make sacrifices," said Stephen Hess, a Congress watcher at the Brookings Institution.

Despite certain opposition, though, major changes - probably pulling several members into national attention for the first time - are in the works as Congress convenes for the start of its 109th session.

Prodded by the independent commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Congress in November approved legislation overhauling the nation's intelligence services. But in what may be an equally contentious process, the House is now turning attention to itself, overhauling the way it oversees intelligence agencies.

"Congress must take the next necessary step and reform itself," said former Sen. Warren Rudman, R-N.H. "This dysfunctional structure works against any meaningful attempt at oversight by Congress."

The change considered most likely could be a broadening of the authority of the current Select Committee on Homeland Security, chaired by Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif.

Responsibilities now assigned to such traditionally powerful committees as the Appropriations Committee, the Armed Services Committee and the Select Committee on Intelligence could be transferred to the Homeland Security Committee, elevated in stature.

Cox has called for a powerful single committee. "It would be worse than an empty shell to have a Homeland Security Committee with jurisdiction that's shared with everyone else," he said. "Is this a political exercise to make chairmen happy, or is that a historic opportunity to fundamentally reshape the committee structure to address homeland security?"

Some 79 congressional committees and subcommittees currently have pieces of homeland-security-oversight action, according to a chart released by Cox.

All 100 senators and 412 of the 435 House members have "some degree over oversight" over the Department of Homeland Security. The department itself is a post-9/11 consolidation of federal agencies drawn together to stop the practice of agencies refusing to share information with each other.

To supervise that department, "clear, centralized lines of authority are needed," former House Speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash., said. He and Rudman co-chaired a task force put together by the private Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Foley and Rudman said the Homeland Security Department is "hamstrung by a system of congressional oversight that drains department energy and invites managerial circumvention."

House Republican leaders have been working for several weeks to produce a reorganization plan for formal unveiling to the GOP majority on Monday.

House Republican leader Tom DeLay of Texas said he's aiming for overwhelming GOP support to enact the plan on Tuesday within hours after the new Congress is sworn in.

It's not as if there is a clamor of support on Capitol Hill for the current system. No one in Congress or the intelligence community has yet to argue that the current system makes much sense.

But it's there and the trick is to dismantle it without inadvertently doing harm to other committees and destroying the expertise that House members may have gained in looking at different parts of the intelligence and national security systems.

Members say the current set-up simply evolved as committees over the years picked up little pieces of the complex U.S. spy network. None of that seemed important until 9/11.

The bipartisan commission that investigated the terrorist attacks put it bluntly: "Congressional oversight for intelligence and counterterrorism is now dysfunctional. So long as oversight is governed by current congressional rules and resolutions, we believe the American people will not get the security they need and want."

The problem with reorganizing oversight is mostly in the House.

The task of straightening out Senate oversight of intelligence has moved ahead with few pains. Turf fighting was minimized because each of the 100 senators has two or three major committees, plus a few more subcommittees and special and select committees.

Sharp conflicts over the authority of the new - and yet unnamed - director of national intelligence forced Congress to return to Washington for a post-election session. The dispute was resolved when the Republican majority agreed to a provision that seemed to preserve the Pentagon's control over the intelligence it gathers.


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.


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