Politics & Policy

Politics Above Intel?

Incoming committee chairman warns Dems against playing politics with intelligence.

The Senate’s recent impasse wasn’t just over how much money will go to each party to pay for its committee staffers. In their insistence on a power-sharing agreement, Senate Democrats also pushed for a dramatic change in the staffing structure of the Select Committee on Intelligence.

According to Senate Republicans, Tom Daschle and the chamber’s Democrats backed a plan to divide the committee’s staff into two groups, reporting separately to the panel’s Republican chairman and Democratic vice chairman.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R., Kan.), the incoming chair of the committee, is up in arms over the proposal.

“We should preserve our Intelligence Committee staff as a single unified staff that works for the committee as a whole under the supervision of the chairman and the vice chairman,” Roberts said in a fiery statement on the Senate floor Tuesday. “The minority apparently wishes to divide the committee staff for the first time in history into majority — minority or partisan camps.”

Roberts said the panel has been a unique institution in the Senate and was envisioned from its start in 1976 to operate under different rules than other committees. He contends the committee has worked well and effectively with a professional nonpartisan staff as originally intended and should continue to do so.

“The incoming chairman and our leadership and the entire Senate should not be party or bystanders to what has been going on in the Senate for the last week or so,” Roberts said. “We should not be part of this hell for leather ride down a partisan trail of obstructionism into a box canyon of delay, confusion, like a herd of cattle milling about in confusion and delay.”

The committee has made no comparable change in its history. When the committee was formed in 1976, members were allowed to nominate one staff member each to be placed on the panel’s payroll and handle that member’s committee issues. But over time, it became clear that the staffers felt a greater sense of loyalty to their sponsoring member rather than to the committee as an institution, and according to committee reports, some staffers worked on nonintelligence issues for their member. That system was scrapped at the beginning of the first session of the 104th Congress, and replaced with a system where staffers were assigned to work with specific senators on intelligence-related work.

Despite the dramatic change proposed by the Democrats, the proposal received scant coverage beyond Robert’s description of the dispute as “the kind of sandbox silliness that prompts folks to wonder if this body is the United States Senate or a partisan Romper Room.”

The importance of an experienced staff can’t be overstated, according to a retired intelligence officer.

“Very often, people who are chosen for staff positions on congressional committees are chosen for political payback position,” the retired officer said. “People who are on congressional staffs are there because they have family connections or something. In an area like intelligence, you need people to be there to learn all these complications and to get some kind of mutual comprehension and trust with people like me who lived in this world.”

“The intelligence business is very secret and arcane, and it’s hard for average people to get a grasp on it,” he continues. “Senators are very busy people. Some of the staffers have become… not quite experts, but they’ve come to have a lot of experience in these areas, and then some of the senators haven’t. The key people are the staff because they stay and they come to understand the other side and therefore there’s good communication between those in the intelligence business and Congress.”

Sen. John D. Rockefeller of West Virginia, the incoming ranking Democrat on the committee, did not have any reaction to Roberts’s comments on the floor, according to a spokeswoman.

Roberts ended his comments with a veiled warning that he will have limited patience for Democratic criticism of the administration and the performance of intelligence agencies that doesn’t match the facts.

“We hear statements that this nation is no better prepared, intelligence-wise that we were prior to 9/11,” he said. “Well, nothing hurts the truth so much as stretchin’ it, and that is not only not true but borders on the politics of opportunism… The sad thing is that we did not have to go down this road. I always figure that it’s a good thing to be a bit nicer than is called for, but don’t take too much guff. It’s time to end

the guff.”

— Jim Geraghty, a reporter for States News Service, covers Washington for several newspapers around the country.


The Latest