9/11 Panel Spurs Senate Turf War

Posted August 6, 2004 at 6:03pm

Foreshadowing turf battles yet to come, two of the Senate’s most influential chairmen are already jostling for supremacy in the fight to reshape committee oversight of the nation’s intelligence agencies.

The ink on the 9/11 commission’s report was barely dry when Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) and Senate Intelligence Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) — the two men who share primary jurisdiction over intelligence oversight — clashed behind the scenes. It was the night of July 22, the same day the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States released its recommendations to streamline Congressional oversight of intelligence agencies.

As Roberts made a pitch to Senate leaders to pass his fiscal 2005 intelligence authorization bill by unanimous consent before Congress left for the six-week August recess, Warner objected because of a provision in Roberts’ bill that would end the eight-year term limits of members of the Senate Intelligence panel. The provision was one of several steps urged by the 9/11 commission to improve Congressional oversight of the 15 government agencies responsible for intelligence operations.

Warner “knows that rotating membership on the Intelligence Committee keeps the committee weak,” said one senior Senate GOP aide. The aide added that Warner “uses it as leverage” to make sure his committee retains more power than the Intelligence Committee.

But John Ullyot, spokesman for Warner, disputed the notion that Warner was solely concerned about turf.

“On the very day that the 9/11 report was issued, Sen. Warner believed it would have been a mistake for the Senate to decide, without debate, to cement in place the way it oversees the American intelligence community,” Ullyot said. “The Senate should take a full, top-to-bottom look at the way Congress oversees intelligence-gathering … as opposed to having one small provision passed by unanimous consent in the middle of the night.”

Ullyot said that Warner was not trying to prevent passage of the intelligence authorization bill, but simply wanted to offer an amendment, subject to a time limit on debate, to return to the status quo by making term limits a condition of serving on the Intelligence panel.

Ullyot added that “as the chairman of the committee with 85 percent of the jurisdiction,” Warner wants to be intimately involved in how Congress might restructure its oversight — especially since so many of the intelligence-gathering agencies in the United States are run by the Pentagon.

Though the 9/11 commission recommended creating a joint House-Senate Intelligence committee with both authorizing and appropriating authority — something no other Congressional panel has the power to do — many in Congress appear reluctant to make such a radical change.

And in more potentially bad news for Roberts, several Senate aides said Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) are considering options other than just empowering the Intelligence panel.

Among the ideas being bandied about is one to dismantle the Senate Intelligence Committee and give all of its authority for oversight to the Armed Services Committee or the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Defense.

“The sun does not rise and set on the 9/11 commission’s recommendations,” said a senior Senate Republican staffer, who noted that Frist and Daschle have yet to appoint a working group of Members to come up with solutions on how to simplify and improve Congressional oversight.

But 9/11 commission member and former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) said putting too much power in the hands of committee members who oversee the Defense Department could be dangerous to Congress’ ability to strengthen oversight of the intelligence community.

“If the Armed Services Committee wins, the American people lose, because national intelligence serves a much broader set of customers than just the Department of Defense,” Kerrey said. “Unless the American people insist that the Armed Services committees in the House and Senate yield that authority … national security will suffer.”

Kerrey noted that the tensions between the Intelligence and Armed Services committees were prevalent even before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Kerrey, who once served on the Senate Intelligence panel, said Warner was instrumental in stripping the 1996 intelligence authorization bill of language that would have strengthened the Intelligence Committee’s oversight abilities.

“Defense people can permanently prevent the intelligence bill from getting passed,” said Kerrey. “Sen. Warner knows that the world will go on without an intelligence authorization bill, but the world can’t go on without a defense authorization bill.”

Indeed, currently the Armed Services Committee as well as the Intelligence panel must approve the intelligence authorization bill before it can be passed on the Senate floor.

Even though he noted that the 9/11 commission did not specify that the Armed Services committees should be shut out of the intelligence debate, Kerrey said it would be contrary to the commission’s recommendations to have what is known as “sequential referral” of the intelligence authorization bill to Armed Services.

Indeed, at Tuesday’s Senate Governmental Affairs Committee hearing, Chris Kojm, the commission’s deputy executive director, noted, “I think our single point would be you need single committees dealing with single problems. The homeland security issues just cover so many committees across government. The intelligence panels don’t have all the powers they need to get their job done.”

The issue of restructuring Congressional oversight has been especially sticky in the Senate, where leaders in both parties have resisted creating a committee to oversee the new Homeland Security Department.

The House created its Select Homeland Security Committee at the beginning of 2003, but Senate leaders declined to do the same. The only reason the Senate Appropriations Committee has a homeland security subcommittee is because the House created such a panel, and Senate leaders realized trying to reconcile disparate spending bills with the House would be too difficult without a similar subcommittee.

Having spent 12 years in the Senate, Kerrey said he was “very sympathetic” about the pressures Members faced in trying to guard their turf.

“It’s difficult to give up,” said Kerrey. “That’s why I think it will be exceptionally difficult for Congress to enact these changes until after another terrorist attack on the United States.”