A Blow to Bipartisanship

A Blow to Bipartisanship

By David Ignatius - December 5, 2014

WASHINGTON -- The House Intelligence Committee, a rare island of bipartisanship in recent years, may soon become a more confrontational arena with the retirement of its chairman, Rep. Mike Rogers.

Rogers is scheduled to be replaced by Rep. Devin Nunes, a conservative California Republican whose critical comments about Benghazi have made him a favorite with Fox News. House Speaker John Boehner announced the Nunes appointment two weeks ago in what appeared to be a concession to right-wing Republicans who want a more adversarial role for this key committee.

A sign of what may lie ahead is that Nunes hasn't publicly endorsed the Intelligence Committee's report last month that cleared the CIA, the military and top Obama administration officials of wrongdoing in the 2012 attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi. This report by Rogers' committee was the latest debunking of the Benghazi issue, but it did little to convince conservative Republicans.

Sen. Rand Paul, for example, called the report "a C.Y.A. attempt designed to protect incompetent politicians and government agents." Sen. Lindsey Graham told CNN: "I think the report is full of crap."

Nunes had sent Boehner in November 2013 a list of "critical outstanding questions" about Benghazi, including such explosive issues as "possible witness intimidation." But, perhaps unknown to Nunes, sources say the committee had already received evidence that rebutted those allegations.

The leadership change on the House panel comes at a delicate time when the intelligence community is coping with severe challenges, from the Islamic State's takeover of northern Iraq and Syria to Russia's aggression in Ukraine. Intelligence agency officials worry that if bipartisan cooperation is lost in the House, the oversight process may become politicized again, as it often was under previous chairmen.

Rogers has been a noteworthy exception to the culture of dysfunction on Capitol Hill. When he became committee chairman in 2011, the Michigan Republican made a pact with Rep. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, the ranking Democrat, to avoid the political grandstanding that had paralyzed the committee for years.

By working together, Rogers and Ruppersberger managed to pass an intelligence authorization bill in 2011, the first such legislation in six years, and to do so every year since. They began by stripping politically charged amendments from the measure, including language on climate change, use of contractors, and Guantanamo. He insisted on joint budget briefings by Republican and Democratic staff members.

Boehner's decision to pick Nunes over other Republicans who wanted the job surprised some members, given that the speaker had chosen Rogers and defended him from right-wing criticism. A Nunes spokesman said the new chairman intends to consult closely with Democrats. He said Nunes hadn't taken a position on the Benghazi report because the committee had to operate "one chairman at a time."

Rogers, a former FBI agent, decided to retire from the House this year and become a radio talk-show host, perhaps in part to build a broader political base. He has become one of the most prominent Republican voices on foreign-policy and intelligence issues, appearing 27 times on the Sunday TV interview shows in 2013, more than any other guest.

Rogers has often criticized President Obama on foreign policy issues, but he has generally backed the intelligence community.

He has been especially supportive of James Clapper, a career intelligence officer who is director of national intelligence. In an interview this week, Rogers said Clapper had "performed the best of any DNI" since the job was created in 2005.

Rogers said that, in his view, "the jury is still out" on CIA Director John Brennan. "Can he shake off the umbilical cord to the White House?" Rogers asked. Brennan served as Obama's adviser on intelligence for four years before becoming CIA director.

Rogers said he hoped Brennan wouldn't rush into a new plan for reorganizing the CIA that would merge analysts and operators into geographical units.

It's important that the House and Senate intelligence committees operate effectively, with bipartisan trust, because the intelligence community badly needs constructive oversight. When the members and staffs work together, they can hold the agencies accountable; when they bicker, it's harder to maintain that accountability.

Rogers has been a pragmatic committee chairman of the sort that once dominated Congress but has become a disappearing species. The inertia of today's Washington troubles Rogers. "We've gotten to the place where people would rather have zero progress than 75 percent. I don't understand that," he told me. Unfortunately, this voice for adult supervision of intelligence is about to hand in his gavel.

(c) 2014, Washington Post Writers Group 

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