Anxious to avoid another political minefield, speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi has tapped Texas Congressman Silvestre Reyes to be the next Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI). Describing Reyes as a compromise choice would be an understatement. Before the November election, Ms. Pelosi made it clear that she would not appoint the panel’s ranking Democrat (California Congresswoman Jane Harman), to the chairman’s post, reflecting long-standing differences between the two women. Then, Pelosi was forced to abandon her first choice for the chairmanship–Florida Representative Alcee Hastings–due to an ethically-checkered past, including his impeachment as a federal judge.
Congressman Reyes clearly doesn’t have the baggage of Mr. Hastings, but only time will tell if he’s the right choice to lead the intel committee. Reyes is described as “less partisan” than other House Democrats (whatever that means), and he has some grounding in intelligence matters, having served on the HPSCI since 2001, and before that, during a 25-year career as a U.S. border patrol agent. Reyes has also been an opponent of the War in Iraq and the planned security fence along the U.S. border, which places him firmly in the Pelosi Wing of the Democratic Caucus, and therefore, qualified to run the intel committee.
In the puff piece announcing his selection, the Associated Press noted that Mr. Reyes wants “more information on the Bush Administration’s most classified programs, and how they are working.” Republicans, he told an interviewer, have a history of “rubber stamping” those programs. The AP also suggests that Reyes will attempt to “increase oversight of critical issues, including terrorism, Iraq and government surveillance.” Also on his agenda is a look at traditional spycraft, which the AP mistakenly refers to as human intelligence (HUMINT).
That all sounds well and good, but it doesn’t strike me as an agenda to reform (or even improve) the intelligence process. HUMINT has been a problem for more than twenty years; heck, I can make a strong case that the U.S. has never been very good at old-fashioned cloak-and-dagger spying, for a variety of reasons. Mr. Reyes (and his committee) have every reason to look at problems in the HUMINT arena, but they need to find out why the problems have persisted for so long, develop effective “fix it” programs with the DNI, and more importantly, hold the community accountable for what does (and doesn’t) work.
But the list of challenges facing the intel community doesn’t end there. As the world migrates to web-based, encrypted communications, the job of collecting signals intelligence (SIGINT) has grown much more difficult. It would be interesting to hear Mr. Reyes’ views on that topic, and how the U.S. should handle the larger issue of cyber-intelligence and cyber-warfare. He also needs to weigh in on some of the emerging battles over analytical roles and missions, pitting service intelligence elements against DIA. Beyond that, there are major issues regarding the management/integration of Measures and Signatures Intelligence (MASINT), the “forensic” realm of intelligence that holds tremendous promise; funding for the “next generation” of intelligence satellites, and the continued integration of the community under DNI leadership. All are critical issues requiring oversight and guidance from the HPSCI chair.
And, if that weren’t enough, there’s the lingering problem of intelligence analysis. During his tenure on the intel committee, Mr. Reyes has also been a member of the sub-committee on Terrorism, HUMINT, Analysis and Counterintelligence, currently chaired by Virginia Republican Jo Ann Davis. Mr. Reyes has been among the legion of Congressman who’ve complained (rightfully) about the “intelligence failures” surrounding 9-11 and WMD in Iraq, but I can’t find that he’s offered any substantive recommendations for fixing that process. Ditto for the related issues of recruting–and retaining–quality intelligence analysts.
In fact, if I could offer any suggestion to the incoming HPSCI chairman, it would be this: focus on the quality of oversight, rather than quantity. For too long, the intel panels in both the House and Senate have been remarkably inconsistent in monitoring the intelligence community and demanding performance. Spectacular intel failures have been (traditionally) followed by high-profile hearings, blue ribbon commissions and plans for reform. But, more often than not, the Congressional watchdogs never bother to follow through. Problems persist, the community fails to change–or persists with bad habits–and the cycle perpetuates itself.
When he assumes the chairmanship next month, Mr. Reyes has an opportunity to break that pattern. However, his prospective agenda (at first blush) appears more focused on castigating the Bush Administration than grappling with the larger problems facing the community. I sincerely hope that I’m wrong in that assessment.
ADDENDUM: I can’t believe that the Congressional Black Caucus will view the Reyes’ appointment with any degree of enthusiasm. Once again, Ms. Pelosi has snubbed one of her most important constituencies, by pulling support for Mr. Hastings, and by-passing another black Democrat, Sanford Bishop of Georgia. As you may recall, Mr. Bishop was bumped from the intel committee six years ago, allowing Jane Harman to join the panel after a failed run for the California governorship. When Hasting’s bid for the chairmanship failed a few days ago, Mr. Bishop was viewed as a suitable replacement–acceptable to the intel community, House Democrats and the Black Caucus. Instead, Mr. Bishop has been passed over again. I can guarantee you that this latest snub will not be forgotten.