9/11 Panel Eyes Hill Oversight

Posted March 29, 2004 at 6:32pm

The independent commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has turned a keen focus on perceived weaknesses in Congressional oversight and is poised to recommend major changes to organizational rules on the House and Senate Intelligence panels and the process used to fund the country’s intelligence activities.

The “rotation” system of membership on the Intelligence committees has emerged as a key early target for several commission members, who believe the custom — as it now works, at least — makes it difficult for Members to develop needed expertise.

The system, which is unique to the Intelligence panels, forces lawmakers to step aside after they have completed a term on either of the committees. House Members serve in six-year cycles, while rotations in the Senate may last as many as eight years.

The commission is also looking at ways to reorganize the spending process for intelligence to make it more adaptive to newly emerging threats. As critics such as House Intelligence ranking member Jane Harman (D-Calif.) describe the problem, the current system, which relies on supplemental spending bills, is “funding old bureaucracies.”

“There’s no question that the budget process is part of the problem” with oversight, House Intelligence Chairman Porter Goss (R-Fla.) agreed, citing what he described as a “circuitous route” from the authorization process to actual spending for intelligence.

One possible reform that is getting a great deal of attention from members of the 9/11 commission is “mission-based” appropriations, which would target money at the threats themselves, rather than simply the agencies that contend with the threats.

“We vitally need to see some creative and reflective changes [to Congressional oversight] that take into account the way the threats are structured today,” said commission member and former Rep. Tim Roemer (D-Ind.) in an interview last week.

Roemer and other commission members described an oversight process in Congress that had barely changed since 1947, at the onset of the Cold War, when the country’s intelligence apparatus was focused almost exclusively on threats from the Soviet Union and its far-flung political and military empire.

“We have an oversight process that hasn’t been updated in 30 years and is not geared toward the threats that exist now,” Roemer said, citing jihadism and other “stateless” threats as a reflection of a “seminal shift” in the challenge to the intelligence agencies.

Roemer, who served on Intelligence until he left Congress in 2002, suggested he finds it absurd that the intelligence panels are the only place where Members cannot accrue seniority and the influence that comes with it.

“Why should that be different for the Intelligence Committee when it may be the most important assignment in a lawmaker’s career, given the current threat environment?” Roemer asked.

Former Navy Secretary John Lehman, a Republican appointee to the commission, said the current system of oversight is “very definitely something that needs to be changed.”

Lehman took an even harder line in a recent interview with the American Spectator magazine, in which he described the current state of Congressional oversight as “appalling.”

“It’s sporadic and ineffectual because after six years you have to rotate off [the intelligence committees], so it’s a constant rotating chairmanship and a constant rotating membership, which means that nobody ever gets to fully understand the issues, so there’s no clear direction,” Lehman told the magazine.

In fact, the oversight questions raised by the 9/11 commission in its internal deliberations share one common theme: In failing to impose rigorous oversight through the authorization and spending processes, Congress has permitted a kind of bureaucratic inertia to take over the intelligence process.

Simply put, the intelligence agencies continue to do what they are doing, because that is what has been done before. Or, alternatively, Congress, because it has not asked the right questions, fails to grasp emerging threats and shifts resources away from where they are needed. One example cited by intelligence committee lawmakers is the sharp reduction of intelligence activities in Africa following the end of the Cold War.

Insiders say one idea that has taken hold inside the 9/11 commission is the introduction of oversight and investigation subcommittees inside the intelligence panels, to ensure that their members are not entirely consumed with budget hearings and “hot spot” briefings from the CIA.

Commission members, as well as reformers on Capitol Hill, consider it critical that the oversight committees work with intelligence agencies to find their holes and weak spots.

The rotation system on the Intelligence committees, which is intended to ensure that fresh perspectives are brought in at regular intervals, has faced Congressional scrutiny for some time.

Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.), a former CIA officer, has been seeking an end to term limits on the Intelligence panels since he was the staff director on the Senate Intelligence Committee in the mid-1980s. He says that at one point during that period nearly half of the Senators rotated off the committee at the same time, decimating the panel’s institutional memory.

Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who now chairs the chamber’s Rules and Administration Committee, has also been among those who have proposed abolishing term limits on Intelligence.

Goss said Congress should strive to find a middle ground. “I think we need to have continuity and ensure fresh blood. And there is a way you can do it.”

Beyond committee rotations are other tricky issues that are likely to be aired. Among them is the question of whether the intelligence panel should remain a leadership assignment, removed from the steering process that chooses the line-ups on all the other committees.

Key lawmakers such as Goss have also been exploring a proposal that would create a single House-Senate intelligence panel, replacing the separate select committee in each chamber.

“All of these things have pros and cons,” Goss said.

Among the hurdles lawmakers face is a traditional overlay of inaction in making changes that have been recommended for the intelligence agencies and their Congressional oversight. A joint House-Senate panel that conducted its own Sept. 11 investigation two years ago issued 19 “urgent” recommendations, of which only three so far have seen Congressional action. The 9/11 commission is required to issue its report and recommendations by July 26.

Commission members have consulted closely with key lawmakers in their examination of the issues surrounding Congressional oversight. Some Members, such as Goss and Senate Intelligence ranking member Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), have long pressed for reforms in the way intelligence activities have been monitored by Congress.

Several commission members, in private meetings with Members, have widened the circle of consultation considerably beyond the intelligence panels.

Roemer, for one, estimates that he has met privately with as many as 10 current Members of Congress, including Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), and former Senate Intelligence ranking member Bob Graham (D-Fla.), as well as “many other Members of the House.”

Richard Ben-Veniste and Jamie Gorelick, two of the commission’s Democrats, said that as far as Congressional oversight is concerned, the panel is taking many of its cues from the former lawmakers who serve with them. Aside from Roemer, ex-Members on the 9/11 commission include Sens. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) and Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) and Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), the panel’s vice chairman.