House intel oversight panel takes first steps, carefully

A new House panel established to beef up oversight of the classified intelligence budget has been providing input on Congress’s first appropriations bill, the Iraq supplemental budget that comes to the House floor today. But so far, reviews are mixed as to whether it is a fix that can sufficiently address longstanding concerns over congressional oversight of the spy agencies.

A key issue at stake is whether the authorizers on the Intelligence Committee will have a greater say in how money for the spy agencies is spent. That power traditionally has been concentrated in the Appropriations Defense Subcommittee.

The Select Intelligence Oversight Panel, created in January, is part of the House Appropriations Committee and includes 10 appropriators on the 13-member subcommittee. The Intelligence Committee provides three more members: Intelligence Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), ranking member Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) and Rush Holt (D-N.J.). Chaired by Holt, the new panel’s goal is to improve coordination between the authorizers on the Intelligence Committee and the appropriators who write the checks for the spy agencies.

Under standard practice, the intelligence panels write the authorization bills to provide the blueprint for the appropriators, just as other committees do. To keep the intelligence budget secret, however, its components are truncated into classified “black accounts” channeled primarily through the defense spending bill. Most of the 16 intelligence agencies are in the Department of Defense.

The intelligence budget remains classified to this day, but it is estimated to total about $45 billion.

In effect, this system gave defense appropriators disproportionate sway over the intelligence budget even though they had far fewer staff and resources on hand. And some intelligence committee members in both chambers have also complained that appropriators have sometimes either ignored their guidelines or added questionable earmarks of their own.

The new oversight panel tries to harmonize the process by bringing more intelligence committee members and staff into the budget-writing process. The panel makes recommendations to the appropriators and coordinates the information flow, as well as hearings and markups, between the two sides. But it still leaves the appropriators with the final say.

“I’m surprised by how much progress we’ve made in the last six weeks,” said Holt. “I had planned not to talk about it at all for several months, just to wait until it got going, but we have been involved in the appropriations work.”

Holt noted that the presence of top appropriators on the panel, including Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) and Defense Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha (D-Pa.), was a deliberate move by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to give it clout. “That has helped us get the work done, and there’s been a lot of cross-talk between committees as a result,” he added.

But other members strike a more skeptical tone. Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), an appropriator and former member of the House Intelligence Committee, praised Holt for his efforts but considers the panel itself “just another layer of bureaucracy.”

“I voted against it because I didn’t think it was a great idea,” LaHood said. “I didn’t see a problem with the old approach. But the [GOP] leadership asked me to serve, since I used to sit on the Intelligence Committee, so I did.”

LaHood added that the panel has been “worthwhile” for those members unfamiliar with the intelligence budget, but said that “attendance overall hasn’t been that great.”

Others offer a more positive take. “The new panel doesn’t represent a perfect solution, but it has brought more Intelligence Committee members and staff into the loop on the budget,” a House Democratic aide said. 

“In the past, for example, someone from the NSA could give testimony to the Intelligence panel that differed from what he told the appropriators,” the aide added. “But now, because there’s more back-and-forth between authorizers and appropriators, there’s more pressure to keep a consistent story. That’s a productive development.”

The issue of congressional intelligence reform got attention in 2004 by way of the 9/11 Commission Report, which blasted the state of oversight as “dysfunctional.” The Commission made several recommendations to strengthen the intelligence committees, but the effort in Congress largely faltered amid strong opposition by appropriators and other lawmakers.

9/11 Commissioner and former Indiana Rep. Tim Roemer (D) called the new panel a “work in progress,” but a good first step.

“Doing something different is better than doing nothing at all, which is what the last Congress did,” he said, alluding to the fact that neither chamber passed an intelligence authorization bill in 2006 or made headway on oversight reform.

Said Roemer: “Our intelligence agencies have a larger budget and are doing more clandestine operations than ever before — so if we don’t have more robust oversight and checks and balances, we are begging for future catastrophes.

“Some members of the intelligence community are still gaming the system, going around the intelligence committees and reporting just to a select few appropriators,” he added. “This way, we get more people involved and tie the authorizers more closely to the power of the purse. It’s not a whole solution, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

Another Democratic aide said that the new Democratic majority could have opted to strengthen the Intelligence Committee itself rather than create a new panel. He added that he wasn’t sure whether the new panel adds “any meaningful levers.”