Lott: End Intel Limits

Posted October 29, 2003 at 6:46pm

Eager to infuse institutional knowledge into the Intelligence Committee, GOP Sens. Trent Lott (Miss.) and John McCain (Ariz.) will offer legislation as early as this week that would abolish the panel’s term limit for lawmakers.

The two Senators said the change is needed to give lawmakers the proper amount of time to learn the intricate details of the intelligence community, a near impossible task in the current eight-year rotation.

“I think one of the reasons we don’t have proper oversight of the CIA and intelligence activities is because we don’t know enough about the lingo and what is going on,” said Lott, a member of the panel.

The committee is investigating the alleged intelligence lapses that occurred prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In recent years, at least four Democrats and two Republicans have served in the roles of chairmen and vice chairmen of the committee. Members serve eight-year terms on the panel.

“I think matters of intelligence now and the war on terrorism are of sufficient gravity [that] it deserves a permanent committee,” McCain said. “There is a really steep learning curve with all these nuances of how intelligence works, particularly the technological aspects of it.”

The eight-year term limit was written into the measure creating the committee in May 1976. The term limit was designed as a mechanism to prevent members of the committee from becoming too cozy with the people and agencies they oversee.

Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), one of two original members of the panel still serving in the Senate, said those concerns have lessened over the years, and he believes it might be time to change the rule.

“I think the idea of non-limitation or extending limitation … is a good idea,” Biden said.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), the vice chairman of the panel, has advocated such a change in the past and said he is “interested” in the proposal.

But Rockefeller would not commit to endorsing the legislation outright and predicted the Senate would not address the issue until next year anyway.

“I don’t think we can accomplish it this year,” he said.

Lott said he plans to vet the idea with Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) in the coming days.

A spokesman for Frist said the Majority Leader had not yet seen the proposal, but “looked forward to doing so.”

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a member of the panel, said he would support the change, but warned that Members need to heed the warnings of the Senators who created the panel 27 years ago.

“There is only one negative I see,” Durbin said. “Within the confines of the intelligence committee it is entirely too chummy. [CIA] Director [George] Tenet is known as George.

“So, I would say that although you need to understand how this works and to develop enough expertise to have meaningful oversight, you have to fight off the temptation to make this so chummy it isn’t true oversight,” Durbin said.

Lott said he does not think abolishing the term limit would lead the committee to lose its historically nonpartisan atmosphere.

“I don’t want to make it into a partisan committee,” he said. “That is not my goal.”

In recent months, relations between Democrats and Republicans have been tested as they struggle over differences over how to conduct the investigation.