Panel seeks to vet intelligence chiefs

October 02, 2005|By SIOBHAN GORMAN | SIOBHAN GORMAN,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- The leaders of three intelligence agencies that spend half the nation's intelligence budget would gain stature and get a closer look from Congress if a proposal from Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski becomes law.

The Maryland Democrat wants the heads of the National Security Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to be subject to Senate confirmation.

Mikulski, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said her measure would, for the first time, require the Senate to weigh in on "the suitability" of nominees for key intelligence posts. She said her committee does not now scrutinize these agencies.

The nominees are currently chosen by the defense secretary, the director of national intelligence and the president without further review by Congress. The provision would dilute their power, said Jeffrey Richelson of the National Security Archive.

"I can't imagine any executive branch figures being crazy about the idea," he said.

A White House spokesman, noting that Mikulski's proposal only became public last week, said the administration was studying it.

Several top intelligence officials are already subject to Senate confirmation: the CIA director, the leaders of the intelligence divisions of the State and Treasury departments, and the director of national intelligence and his top deputy.

Historically, however, Congress has largely left it to the military to monitor the three agencies that Mikulski's proposal would affect.

"With the increasing prominence and importance of the intelligence community, we think that they deserve the same sort of oversight and scrutiny that we now give to the CIA," said a Senate Intelligence Committee aide.

The provision would ensure that the leaders of these agencies are required to explain where they want to take each organization before they take the helm, the aide added.

Budget numbers are classified, but Jonathan Pike, an intelligence specialist at Globalsecurity.org, estimates the NSA and NRO budgets at $7 billion apiece and the NGA's at $2 billion.

The NSA, with its 32,000-strong work force, is the largest U.S. intelligence agency, yet its directors only go through an evaluation by the Senate Armed Services Committee to verify their fitness for the rank of a three-star general - a rank automatically conferred with the job - not their fitness to run the highly secret eavesdropping agency.

With about 3,000 employees, the NRO has the largest budget of all the intelligence agencies because it's responsible for purchasing major satellite spy systems. Until this year, the director of the NRO also was an Air Force undersecretary and subject to Senate approval for the undersecretary role. This year the Pentagon split the job into two positions.

The NGA, which is based in Bethesda, has fewer than 9,000 employees. It is responsible for gathering intelligence by photos and maps and has traditionally had a lower profile among the intelligence agencies.

Mikulski's provision is part of a larger measure the Senate Intelligence Committee approved late Thursday. Expected to be voted on by the full Senate this month, the bill, much of which is classified, governs the activities of all 15 U.S. intelligence agencies.

A congressional aide said Mikulski's proposal could run into opposition from the House and Senate Armed Services committees, which have often resisted measures that might encroach on their turf.

siobhan.gorman@baltsun.com

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