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House Members Debates Role of Congress in Intelligence Oversight

August 4, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: So with so many committees meeting, and so many hearings underway, is all that activity good or bad for the U.S. Intelligence community?

For that, we turn to two members of the House Intelligence Committee that we were just hearing from a minute ago: Republican Ray LaHood of Illinois, and Democrat Anna Eshoo of California.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. LaHood, we heard in the hearings today many things, among them that the Department of Homeland Security say they have to report to 88 separate congressional committees.

The 9/11 Commission says that this congressional oversight system is dysfunctional is the word they use. Do you agree with that?

REP. RAY LAHOOD: I think there are too many committees.

I think there probably is too much jurisdiction, and I think when the new Congress convenes next year, our leadership is going to have to come to grips with the idea that you can’t have this many committees with oversight over intelligence and homeland security and domestic security, and it really needs to be whittled down to a much smaller structure, and it’s going to be up to our leadership to really make this happen. Under the current structure, there are too many.

I overheard the president ask Secretary Ridge how many times have you been up to the Hill? And he said 144 times. Well, how on earth can these people, whether it’s the CIA, FBI, Homeland Security, do their job if they’re spending all their time up here, and it is a point well taken and we need to restructure.

GWEN IFILL: Anna Eshoo, what is your reaction to that?

REP. ANNA ESHOO: Well, there isn’t any question in my mind that the Congress needs to reform itself and its committee structure in dealing with this.

This is the issue, the greatest challenge for our country today. I’ve been critical of how a smaller committee, the House Intelligence Committee that I serve on, how it has functioned relative to its oversight.

But there is no question that we need to reform. It’s not going to be easy. It is not going to be easy for the intelligence community.

It certainly is not going to be easy for the Congress because it’s territorial. It’s about power. And so there will be a real usual and pull both on the intelligence community side and in the Congress as well.

GWEN IFILL: So Mr. LaHood, we heard Anna Eshoo saying during the hearing for instance about how difficult it is to even get an answer when you ask the questions on these committee hearings.

What is it that the House and the Senate have to start doing right now to get some of the reforms that you are talking about, that you say are needed?

REP. RAY LAHOOD: Well, you have to be able to ask the right questions. Sometimes some of these witnesses don’t always give us the direct answers that we want, and it really is incumbent upon the members to do their homework.

And you need members that are experienced, too. This idea of term limits where you only allow members to serve for eight years; the Senate just eliminated that.

We need more than eight years because it takes you about four years just to understand the lingo and the language and all the sophisticated kind of messages that are being passed to you.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you this: One of the people who testified today said maybe you should just cut the number of staffers in half and pay them twice as much. Is that the beginning of where you need to go?

REP. RAY LAHOOD: Well, probably what we need to do is cut the number of committees in half so that when people come up here, it can be substantive.

They can really do their job and they don’t have to worry about running from one committee to another.

But if you cut the number of committees, you cut the number of staff: But Anna is right about this. This is about power; it’s about staff; it’s about money; it’s about members’ ability to go back home and crow about the fact that they’re on a significant committee.

It is going to take the leaders of Congress to really set a course where we have a much smaller group of members, a much smaller group of committees that have oversight so we can really dig into the issues that we need to get into.

GWEN IFILL: Ms. Eshoo, if you were in the majority and you ruled the world, what would you do first?

REP. ANNA ESHOO: What would I do first? Well, certainly I think that homeland security needs to have a permanent committee. It should not be essentially this broad task force. It should be institutionalized both in the Senate and the House.

I would pare down the number of jurisdictions and the number of committees that these issues have to go to.

Thirdly, I think that for the House Intelligence Committee, it is very important that it produce products. We’ve had many, many hearings in the last year and a half, some sixty some hearings. But what have we put out? Has there been a real thorough examination of the issues relative to the run-up to the war?

These are tough things to do because there is a political overlay to it. But I’m very frustrated, not only in terms of how difficult it is to extract the information from the people that come up to testify, but also to not have a work product that has actually come out of these 60 some hearings.

I think we should have subpoena power. That would certainly send a message to the executive branch, so I think that there are some very important reforms that need to be made. I’ve got my ideas. I’m going to fight hard for them.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. LaHood, what are your ideas?

REP. RAY LAHOOD: Well, in defense of the committee, I mean I was a part of the bicameral committee that studied what happened and we put out an 800-page report and we had a 12-month period of time when we really looked at what happened before 9/11; we put out a report.

And I do think it can’t be left unsaid that the chairman announced today that we are going to mark up some bills.

After we hold these hearings which will be three more weeks of hearings for the three consecutive Wednesdays, for the next three weeks, the chairman has made a commitment, Chairman Goss has said today that we are going to mark up a bill based on what we hear from the testimony and what members think is important and we’ll consider the bill that has been introduced by the Democrats, the chairman’s introduced his bill.

The administration has their point of view and hopefully some of these things can converge and we can have some legislation that comes out of the House Intelligence Committee that makes sense in terms of what the 9/11 Commission recommended.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. LaHood, let’s for a minute find out what you said through the ears of a regular person who is not a member of Washington.

They heard you talking about marking up bills, about considering legislation, about eventually coming up with a solution.

What confidence can a tax-paying citizen of your district have that Congress sees this as an urgent concern that will get done more quickly than bills normally get done on the Hill?

REP. RAY LAHOOD: Well, Gwen, the fact that we are here now in August, away from our so-called vacation, which most of us are back in our districts working, almost every committee member was here– was here today on a Wednesday when we had plenty of things scheduled in our districts which we canceled;

I think our committee is committed for the next four weeks to do what we have to do to get information on what the commission recommended, to hear from the commissioners and then to write a bill that is based on the recommendations of the commission, based on the recommendations of what President Bush and his team would like to have, and based on some of the things that all of us have learned over the last several months from the hearings that we’ve had.

We’re going to write a bill and we’re going to incorporate a lot of things.

We’re here in Washington today and in IR working along with the rest of our committee to do the work that has to be done to implement some of the recommendations.

GWEN IFILL: Ms. Eshoo, if, for instance Congress were to take on — create a joint House-Senate Committee that would be the mega-committee to oversee all of this, would that committee, first of all would that work with turf wars being what they are, and secondly would this committee also have to have budget authority?

REP. ANNA ESHOO: Well, one of the recommendations today was that the intelligence committees have money power, not just authorizing, but not get into turf battles with appropriators.

That’s going to be a tough battle in the Congress, no appropriator wants to give up the power that they have. But I do think that that’s something for us to examine. I want to add something to this. I’m always glad to be here with my friend Ray LaHood. And I couldn’t mean that more.

But I truly believe that we wouldn’t be here considering the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission were it not for the fact that the Commission did the extraordinary work that it did. They brought the American people along on this. There wasn’t any sense of urgency in the Congress to be taking up legislation.

We’ve had a bill sitting around since April. There wasn’t any rush to this. But the families of the victims, together with the extraordinary bipartisan unanimous decision of the Commission, and the bringing along of the American people, that’s what created the real energy around this and the sense of urgency.

So I’m glad that we’re here today. I’m glad we are going to be having hearings. And we’ve got to bring the rest of the Congress in on this because they’re going to have to know what is being shaped and what is being offered and then make a decision.

But it wasn’t the Congress that did this.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. LaHood, Speaker Hastert, your Republican leader said today in an interview on CNN, that any action the Congress takes should be quick but not knee jerk.

Can you tell us what that means and whether a middle ground of that kind even exists?

REP. RAY LAHOOD: Well, Gwen, what I think it means is what we are doing here for the next four weeks or the next three weeks now after today, but four weeks of hearings, two of which will be open; today’s hearing was open.

Next week’s hearing will be open. We may have one closed and another open hearing where the public can hear what we have to say.

I don’t think it will be knee jerk. I think we’ll take what we have and try and mold a piece of legislation that follows what hopefully the president would like, what the 9/11 Commission would like and what some of us would like and come up with a bill. It won’t be knee jerk. It will be deliberate.

A lot of hearings have been held, a lot of activity has taken place. Now we need to fish or cut bait. And I think we are going to do a lot of fishing and I think we’ll have a good catch at the end of the day with a good bill that incorporates the things that many of us believe are important.

GWEN IFILL: And finally, Ms. Eshoo, to use Mr. LaHood’s terms, if you fish and then cut bait, when will the bait be cut, by the end of this year, by the end of next year, sooner, later?

REP. ANNA ESHOO: I think the Congress and its leadership is not going to let this go. They know that the American people feel very strongly about this.

And so I think that there will be action on legislation. And my guess… and it’s only a guess… is that it will be done before the end of this year. I agree with Ray that we should never do sloppy legislation. That would be hurtful to the country.

But I maintain that we have lost and squandered an enormous amount of time over the last year, year and a half. We could have been really ahead on this but now’s the time, now’s the moment, and I welcome it.

GWEN IFILL: Anna Eshoo and Ray LaHood. Thank you both for joining us.

REP. RAY LAHOOD: Thank you, Gwen.

REP. ANNA ESHOO: It’s an honor to be on the program.