Ed Ward, MDNew Democratic committee may not improve spy oversight or blSat Jan 13, 2007 14:22
New Democratic committee may not improve spy oversight or block Duke Cunningham-style fraud
Published: Wednesday January 10, 2007
The second of three bills passed in the first 100 hours of the new Congress, dealing with oversight on the budgets of America's spies, emerged in a heavily partisan atmosphere. So bad, that one Republican Congressman said that if the shoe was on the other foot that Democrats would be "screaming bloody murder."
In spite of Congress's dispute over the bill, RAW STORY has learned that the bill's true effects on America's intelligence operations may be quite limited.
On Monday night, with much of the national spotlight gone, the House passed H. Res. 35, which establishes a Select Intelligence Oversight Panel under the House Committee on Appropriations, on a vote of 239-188. In contrast to two bills that raised the minimum wage and implemented some recommendations of the 9/11 Commission and garnered considerable Republican support, only 8 members of the minority party voted with Democrats on the measure.
"This is a subject that created a surprising amount of divisiveness for the small impact the legislation will actually have," said Steven Aftergood, who directs the Project on Government Secrecy at Washington's Federation of American Scientists.
The bill, written by Rep. David Obey, the Democratic Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, creates a subcommittee that will "review and study on a continuing basis budget requests for and execution of intelligence activities."
The novelty of the subcommittee was described by Rep. Silvestre Reyes, the new Democratic Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
"Members of the House Intelligence Committee will now have a seat at table where the precise funding levels for U.S. intelligence activities are set," Reyes explained. "Our inability to impact the appropriations process in the past has led to an erosion of our oversight. In enacting this important reform, we will be strengthening our oversight over intelligence."
Heavily partisan debate on the House floor
The late afternoon debate on Monday saw a persistence of invective passing back and forth between House Rules Committee Chairman Alcee Hastings (D-FL), and Rep. David Dreier (R-FL), the ranking Republican, as they shepherded the debate between the two parties through the House floor.
Rep. Heather Wilson's (R-NM) floor statement was evidence of the Republican disdain directed at the second bill passed in the new Congress. Wilson expressed pity for House Democrats because "you said you were going to implement the 9/11 Commission recommendations, and now you have to at least appear to make good on that promise even if it doesn't make any sense."
"We have tied the intelligence oversight in knots with this proposal," she added.
The Republicans' real concerns, however, were more clearly stated by Rep. Roy LaHood (R-IL). "Our leader has no say in who is appointed to this task force or committee," he said, expressing fear that Republicans would have no influence on the oversight process that would emerge.
"Unprecedented. You would never stand for that. Mr. Obey and Mr. Hastings, you would be up here screaming bloody murder if we tried to pull that stunt," he added.
Expectations of the spy oversight panel differ
At some level, the Republican vituperation belied a lack of clear understanding of the new oversight panel's activities. Jim Spechk, the Press Secretary of Rep. Jerry Lewis, top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, told RAW STORY before the vote, "His general philosophy on these kinds of things is when you create a new entity, it slows things down and makes things more difficult." But, he added, "He's talking to people on both sides of the aisle and anyone who is involved in the process to get an idea of how this proposal would work."
Nevertheless, House Democrats still had high hopes for the bill.
"Does the Appropriations Committee, based on its record of the last 2 years, need some additional oversight on this issue? You bet it does," said Rep. Obey, the bill's author, on the House floor.
Obey added that the bill would "lead to a beefed-up staff for this task force, and that task force will be buttressed by the subpoena power of the Appropriations Committee. That means that at long last we will have at least one panel which the intelligence community cannot ignore."
Another House Democrat also hoped that the new panel would curb corruption in the programs of the intelligence agencies.
"Could the abuse and corruption that was done unto the budget survive the scrutiny of what we are proposing here, where a member of the Intelligence Committee committed those crimes?" was asked by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), referring to the case of Randall "Duke" Cunningham, the California Republican who plead guilty last year to a variety of corruption charges, some of which may have involved classified contracts for the agencies of the intelligence community.
Experts question bill's impact
Nonetheless, some experts outside Congress questioned whether the bill would have much impact in spite of the hew and cry seen on the House floor Monday night.
Calling the move a "net plus" and "incremental," government secrecy expert Steven Aftergood still noted that "No authority has been removed from either the intelligence committee or from the defense appropriations subcommittee."
"There's some minor turf concerns, and it may be that there's some new inefficiency as another level of review is added," he added. "But for better or for worse, it's simply not that big of a deal."
Scott Lilly, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress with years of experience on the House Appropriations Committee, also said that the bill was less important than the people involved in the oversight process.
Although he believed the bill would enhance oversight on the spy agencies, Lily said "Ultimately, good oversight comes from having smart members who work hard, who are willing to take tough stands, and ask hard questions."
"If you do not have that, no matter what the division of labor is, or the structure, you won't have good oversight."
Lilly also wasn't sure that the new panel could do much about Cunningham-like fraud. "The intelligence budget is in some ways more vulnerable because it is secret and difficult, even to people who have clearances to read it, and understand what it all means."
"In general, I think the more people who review the intelligence budget, the better. This bill will contribute to that," he said. "But I'm disappointed that intelligence budget declassification is not currently on the agenda. That was one of the 9/11 Commission recommendations, and the House left it out."
The leadership of America's intelligence agencies was unwilling to address how it sees the the new panel.
"We decline to address the questions presented below," said the Public Affairs Office of the Directorate of National Intelligence in an terse email response to RAW STORY.
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Ed Ward, MD; http://www.thepriceofliberty.org/arc_ward.htm
Independent writer/Media Liaison for The Price of Liberty; http://www.thepriceofliberty.org/
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