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Congressional Committees’ Role in Overseeing Intelligence Failures

August 4, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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KWAME HOLMAN: The recently released 9/11 report concluded that several congressional committees with oversight of intelligence agencies, “lack the power, influence and sustained capability” to be effective.

But House Intelligence Committee Chairman Porter Goss disagrees, and when he opened his committee’s first hearing this morning on recommendations made by the 9/11 Commission, he reminded colleagues how much work the committee already has done to improve the nation’s intelligence-gathering capabilities.

REP. PORTER GOSS: Including today’s hearing, the committee including its subcommittees has held 62 oversight hearings on various aspects of the community intelligence community’s performance and resources need of this Congress. I would note this is more hearings than the committee has held in any other calendar year. We have been busy.

KWAME HOLMAN: But the committee’s ranking Democrat, Jane Harman, of California, said the committee should be doing more.

REP. JANE HARMAN: This committee appears to be moving in reverse. Today’s hearing is entitled the lack of imagination and creativity. Maybe I lack imagination and creativity, but I cannot figure out why we are not marking up today, two bills, that have been pending in this committee for months. As you pointed out, we’ve had 62 hearings just this year on topics that are relevant to marking up legislation. So why isn’t our committee moving faster?

KWAME HOLMAN: New York Republican Sherwood Boehlert jumped in and argued wholesale changes to the intelligence community cannot be made overnight.

REP. SHERWOOD BOEHLERT: People say we’ve got all the answers to all the questions. Now let’s go forward instantly, reconvene Congress tomorrow, pass it and our problems are solved. That’s not the way it works.

KWAME HOLMAN: But California Democrat Anna Eshoo also argued current congressional oversight isn’t working either.

REP. ANNA ESHOO: But you have to go through twenty, thirty questions and jump through hoops and loops and ask the questions in a certain very specific way in order to secure information. And at the end of it, I think that the role, that the essential role that the Congress play in terms of oversight has really been diminished.

KWAME HOLMAN: That got agreement from one of those invited to discuss the 9/11 Commission recommendations. John Hamre, deputy secretary of defense during the Clinton administration, went on to list all of the problems he sees with congressional oversight.

JOHN HAMRE: The committees are too big, the staffs are too big. I frankly think cut the size of the staff in half and pay everybody twice as much. That would be a great accomplishment because there are too many people competing at too low a level for issues. Forgive me. I’ll just offend everybody in the room and say you can’t really do oversight when you come to town on Tuesday night and you leave on Thursday night. There’s not enough of you here long enough to really guide the nation.

KWAME HOLMAN: Michigan Republican Peter Hoekstra took exception to Hamre’s remarks.

REP. PETER HOEKSTRA: Saying that Congress only works Tuesday through Thursday, I think is an unfair characterization of what we do. Oversight is a function of how committed individual members are of doing their jobs. I think you’ll frequently find that the Friday through Mondays are very, very effective days for oversight, especially for members of the Intel Committee as we rye try to visit and meet with folks in the intel community, either domestically or internationally. So cheap shot, not well taken by this member.

KWAME HOLMAN: Illinois Republican Ray LaHood also defended congress’ efforts, and questioned another of the Commission’s recommendations, creating a new national intelligence director.

REP. RAY LAHOOD: The idea that we have been sitting around on our hands for the last three years or the administration hasn’t done anything is nonsense. And I think it’s also a little bit silly to think that one person, whatever name you call them, intelligence tsar or whatever is going to come in and wave a magic wand and get people to communicate is a bit of folly.

KWAME HOLMAN: Hamre said he too is against creating a DNI, a director of national intelligence, but said it’s likely to happen.

JOHN HAMRE: I think having the president endorsing a DNI, and having Sen. Kerry call for a DNI. means we are going to have a DNI. To be honest, if we pick it up on Monday, we are going to get a weaker CIA and weak DNI; that’s not going to be good.

SPOKESMAN: My question is if the president hadn’t come out for the so-called intelligence tsar, would you be here today promoting it even though you don’t think it’s a good idea?

JOHN HAMRE: Sir, I’m politically realistic.

SPOKESMAN: I know you are. But I’m asking you if the president hadn’t done it, would you be here today saying it is probably not that good an idea.

JOHN HAMRE: Frankly I dodged it when I wrote my statement for you. And frankly, I ducked that because I’m pretty divided on the issue in my own mind.

KWAME HOLMAN: Congress already has held four hearing on the 9/11 Commission recommendations with nearly a dozen to go this month. Thus far, members have expressed strong reservations about making radical changes to the intelligence community and the way Congress oversees it.