GOP is anxious to exert oversight powers on national security issues

Republican critics of the Obama administration’s approach to national security are eager to wield their new oversight power in the next Congress.

Even before Republicans regained the House majority on Tuesday, President Obama’s national security agenda had met with resistance from lawmakers. The country has experienced several attempted attacks during his two years in the White House and seen a rise in homegrown terrorism. 

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In the last year, the White House backed away from several key components of its original national security agenda, including closing the detainee prison facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and moving it to Illinois. The administration retreated from holding trials for some detainees and terrorism suspects in civilian courts.

The administration also abandoned its review of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program when the threat of prosecution began to hurt agency morale. 

Retiring Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), the highest-ranking GOP member of the House Intelligence panel, said there is much more intelligence oversight work left for Republicans to do.

Hoekstra expects the panel to scrutinize a number of security issues in the next Congress, including the expanded role of predator drones in counter-terrorism operations. He said the panel is also likely to investigate reports that several detainees who were once held at Guantánamo have become leaders of al Qaeda in Yemen. 

Hoekstra also said the committee needs to press intelligence leaders to be more forthcoming about their operations. 

“There’s been a lack of transparency from the [director of national intelligence (DNI)],” he said. “I think [CIA Director] Leon Panetta has been very, very open but other parts of the national security apparatus haven’t been. [Former DNI Dennis] Blair was open and [National Security Adviser] John Brennan was not.”

Hoekstra’s departure from the panel eliminates one of the most ardent critics of the administration’s national security policies, but there are plenty of likeminded Republicans ready to take his place.

The most senior member of the panel behind Hoekstra is Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.), but he will hit his term limit on the panel next year. The next two GOP members in order of seniority are Reps. Mac Thornberry (Texas) and Mike Rogers (Mich.). 

Rep. John Boehner (Ohio), the likely Speaker of the next Congress, is in a difficult position because both Thornberry and Rogers want the gavel. Unlike with other House committees, the Speaker handpicks who will serve as chairman of the Intelligence panel.

Thornberry’s office did not return a request for comment Wednesday. Rogers’s office also declined to make a statement.

Even though Thornberry has more seniority, Rogers’s background as a special agent in the FBI could help him win the gavel. On the other hand, Thornberry is widely respected for his years of work on both the Intelligence and Armed Services committees.

Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), an outspoken critic of the Obama administration, is in the running for the gavel on another key national security panel, the House Homeland Security Committee, on which he is currently the ranking Republican. King told The Hill he is “absolutely” interested in becoming chairman.

King’s strong conservative record on national security issues and his experience representing parts of New York during the Sept. 11th attacks will likely help him win the committee's top post. Several other senior Republicans, such as Reps. Jerry Lewis (Calif.) and Joe Barton (Texas), are seeking waivers for committee posts, but the GOP conference usually frowns on granting them. 

King has not served a full three terms atop of the Homeland Security Committee, and so will not by term-limited to receive the panel's chairman position.

King is unlikely to face any opposition for the position from the committee’s other senior Republican members. One of them, Rep. Lamar Smith (Texas), is in line to become chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, while the other, Rep. Dan Lungren (Calif.), is expected to become chairman of the Administration Committee. 

If Rogers is not granted the top job on the Intelligence Committee, however, he could throw his hat into the ring of names to be considered along with King’s for the Homeland gavel.

In the wake of last week’s failed bombings, in which several packages containing explosive components were mailed to Chicago, King is calling on the Homeland Security Committee to strengthen levels of security on cargo planes headed into the U.S. On Tuesday, current committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) requested an assessment from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) of the challenges of screening and securing U.S.-bound cargo.

In recent months, King has been developing plans for the committee. He has disagreed with some ways the panel has been run in recent years. He argued, for instance, that the panel did not provide enough oversight of the way the administration was handling detainees at Guantánamo or the Fort Hood shootings last year, in which a U.S. Army major allegedly shot and killed 13 people.

“I would want the committee to focus more on homeland security,” King said in an interview with The Hill. “It sounds obvious, but I believe that over the last couple of years the Homeland Security Committee has avoided too many vital homeland security issues.”

In an effort to streamline government and make the Congress more effective, King said he is planning to have an in-depth talk with Boehner about consolidating the more than 100 subcommittees and committees that claim jurisdiction over the area of homeland security.

“It’s just impossible to have a functioning department with that many subcommittees, committees and commissions,” he said. “We believe this has to be corrected.”