Congress' Broken Oversight

Congress' Broken Oversight

By David Ignatius - December 5, 2010

WASHINGTON -- The next Congress has a chance to do something that has eluded its predecessors -- which is to stop playing partisan games on intelligence and step up its responsibilities of oversight.

The key to reform lies with the Democratic and Republican leadership, which must restrain their instincts for logrolling, turf protection and petty politics in handling these sensitive committees. If bipartisanship is going to work anywhere, it should begin with intelligence.

The problem is that when it comes to intelligence, Congress has been prepared to clean every house but its own. For six years it has ignored the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission to reorganize its broken system for supervising the intelligence community.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (soon to be minority leader) has compounded the problem by treating appointments to the House intelligence committee as a matter of personal prerogative. That demeans the committee and the people she chooses for it. She should treat intelligence like a normal committee, rather than her own fief.

Two reforms would get Congress off to the right start in better oversight of the intelligence community, a sprawling, poorly managed archipelago of agencies that badly needs coherent guidance and review, as opposed to the usual finger- pointing and second-guessing.

The first thing Congress should do is implement the 9/11 Commission's proposals to simplify and strengthen the oversight of intelligence and homeland security.

"Congressional oversight for intelligence -- and counterterrorism -- is now dysfunctional," the commission wrote. The authors warned that because Congress would fight to maintain its existing, inefficient structure, "Of all our recommendations, strengthening congressional oversight may be among the most difficult and important."

What worried the commission was that congressional power was split among too many committees with overlapping jurisdictions and bureaucratic priorities. Committee members "lack the power, influence and sustained capability to meet this challenge," the commission noted. Responsibilities were spread thin in part because of the traditional split between authorizers and appropriators, which left neither with the power or expertise to make reliable decisions about highly technical intelligence collection systems.

The commission recommended one of two radical proposals to empower the overseers: Congress could create a joint committee on intelligence, like the old Joint Committee on Atomic Energy; or it could allow the existing House and Senate intelligence committees to keep functioning but give them added jurisdiction over appropriations for the intelligence agencies.

Either approach would have created super-committees with real heft. Neither was adopted. Now it's time to choose one of these paths to stronger oversight.

The situation is even worse with homeland security. As of 2004, the leaders of the new Department of Homeland Security were required to appear before 88 committees and subcommittees of Congress. That burden has been eased with the creation of new homeland security committees in the House and Senate. But too many other committees are still grabbing for a piece of the action.

It would be easy, in principle, to fix Pelosi's practice of treating Democratic appointments to the House intelligence committee as personal patronage. The Democratic caucus can simply take that power away from her.

The top three Democratic members who served under Pelosi this term -- chairman Silvestre Reyes of Texas, Alcee Hastings of Florida and Anna Eshoo of California -- have been distinguished more by their loyalty to the speaker by than any expertise on intelligence. Hastings was impeached and convicted by the Senate in 1989 for an instance of alleged bribery that took place while he was a federal judge; that's hardly an ideal resume for someone trusted to guard the nation's most precious secrets.

Another dubious moment was Pelosi's decision to remove Rep. Jane Harman of California from the committee in 2006 just as she was about to become its chairman. Given that Harman was a widely recognized expert on intelligence, that looked to many observers like vindictive politics (the two Californians had long feuded), rather than good leadership.

Rep. Jim Matheson of Utah introduced an amendment to the Democratic caucus rules last month that would give members a vote on who serves as chairman or ranking member of the intelligence committee. But that proposal was defeated. House Republicans, meanwhile, have an unusual opportunity to appoint a genuine expert in intelligence, former FBI agent Mike Rogers of Michigan, when they take control in January.

The intelligence agencies need better management and performance. It's time for Congress to get in the game by creating committees that are equal to the challenge of overseeing the spy world.

Copyright 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

David Ignatius

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