The Politics of Intelligence Reform
Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi has unveiled plans for a new Intelligence Oversight Committee, which will apparently focus on the nation's intel budget, and how those resources are used.
At a news conference, Ms. Pelosi said creation of the new panel "makes oversight stronger, and the American people safer." We'll see.
According to Pelosi, the oversight committee will be comprised of members from the Appropriations Committee and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI), which has traditionally exercised oversight authority.
As we've noted before, the problem with intel oversight is not the "quantity" of effort, but rather, the "quality" and perseverance assigned to the task. For example, incoming Intel Committee chairman Silvestre Reyes has indicated that he's concerned with the quality of our human intelligence (HUMINT). That's a valid concern, but problems with HUMINT date back more than 20 years. It doesn't take a spook to understand that our HUMINT efforts might have improved if successive HPSCI chairmen--and members--had done their job, and held the community's feet to the performance fire.
And, BTW, creation of another Congressional panel won't necessarily improve the quality of intelligence oversight. Intel budgeting and expenditures is one of those areas where the community often needs a little discretion, allowing agencies to fund key programs through means that are (ahem) creative and non-traditional. Members of Congress--and their staffers--have long demonstrated that they can't keep a secret. We can only wonder how many black world programs will be "blown" by allowing this new panel to rummage through the intel community's books.
In reality, Ms. Pelosi's plan is more about politics than oversight reform. By giving the appropriations committee a key role in intel oversight, the speaker-elect will grant more power to a pair of key allies, David Obey of Wisconsin (who will chair the panel in January), and Pennsylvania's Jack Murtha, whom she supported in a failed bid for majority leader. Obey and Murtha (who will chair the defense appropriations sub-committee) are expected to have a major say in who winds up on the intel oversight panel, and the matters they pursue. And since both strongly oppose U.S. involvement in Iraq, they (along with Ms. Pelosi) can use the sub-committee to investigate various intel issues they oppose, and further weaken administration policies in the War on Terror.
Then, there's the lingering matter of that favor that Ms. Pelosi owes to the Congressional Black Caucus. When she named Reyes as HPSCI chair earlier this month, Pelosi bypassed other candidates, including Georgia Congressman Sanford Bishop. You may recall that Mr. Bishop was bumped from the intel panel back in 2000, to make room for California's Jane Harman, who was looking for a committee assignment after losing her bid for governor. Guess who's currently serving on the Appropriations Committee? None other than Sanford Bishop. That's why we won't be a bit surprised when Mr. Bishop is named the first chairman of the oversight sub-committee. That way, Ms. Pelosi can keep the Black Caucus happy, put more power in the hands of key allies, and undercut Bush Administration policies--all in the name of intelligence reform.
Addendum: Pelosi's creation of an oversight sub-committee is an obvious blow to Mr. Reyes, who will lose authority over a critical issue--the intelligence community budget. Perhaps Ms. Pelosi was upset by Reyes' support for more troops in Iraq, or maybe she was unimpressed by his lack of knowledge on the branches of Islam. In any case, the speaker-elect's decision is hardly a ringing endorsement of Mr. Reyes and his committee, even if her "proposal" is based more in partisan politics than a genuine desire for reform.