Lott allows Intel expansion to proceed after staff tussle

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, has allowed an expansion of the offices of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to proceed after first blocking it.

Lott consented to let the office-expansion project resume after resolving a dispute over his designated staffer on the panel, according to sources familiar with the situation.

There is also widespread speculation that Bill Duhnke, the panel’s staff director, will soon leave, though it is not known whether the talk of his departure is related to his relationship with Lott. The two have clashed in the past over Lott’s staff designee, among other things, according to Senate sources.

Senate Resolution 445, which the chamber passed last Congress to improve congressional oversight of the intelligence community, authorized the Intelligence Committee to hire designated staff for each member of the committee.

But the additional staff led to overcrowding in the committee workspace. The lack of space had forced intelligence staffers to double up in cubicles and to cram into a conference room to find workspace, said a source familiar with the accommodations.

“We hired 15 new employees,” said Intelligence Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.). “They’re sitting on each other now. So we have to get more room.”

Roberts made the statement during the height of the impasse with Lott a few weeks ago.

Right now Lott is the only member of the committee that does not have a permanent designated staffer on the committee, which is striking because Lott is one of the most outspoken members on the panel and has pushed for more active Senate oversight of intelligence. The additional staff is meant to provide such oversight.

Lott has clashed with committee staff over his designated aide.

“They jerked me around for a while, but I pushed back on it pretty aggressively,” he said. He would not say explicitly that the controversy is why he halted construction.

“How can you relate the two?” Lott said with mock indignation in response to an inquiry.

Lott said that his designated staffer will join the committee at the end of August and that part of the reason it has taken so long is that his pick, who “has an intelligence background,” also has an “Army responsibility.”

Senate sources said that Duhnke had assigned Lott a staffer with little Intelligence Committee experience, though it was before the panel adopted the current staffing arrangement, which allows lawmakers to choose their designated staffers.

“I think sometime they are accomplices in a way in not letting senators know very much,” Lott said of committee staff. But he added: “Generally, they’re pretty good. I’m pretty impressed.”

Over the past two years, Lott has emerged as an authority on intelligence issues, at times implicitly challenging his chairman’s handling of the committee while always stopping well short of any direct criticism. One Democratic lawmaker said that at times Lott has appeared impatient with the committee.

Lott said that more still needs to be done to improve management of the intelligence community: “It’s better but it’s certainly not where I think it ought to be. I feel we’re not asking tough enough questions of the CIA and FBI and we’re liable to regret it.”

Roberts said construction on the new office space was restarted after he insisted on it.

“I told [Lott] we need to get the construction done,” Roberts said.