Intelligence chair assigned to Reyes

Pelosi picks Texas congressman, ends fight over job

December 02, 2006|By Greg Miller | Greg Miller,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi picked Texas congressman and former border patrol agent Silvestre Reyes yesterday to be the next chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, ending what had become a distracting fight among Democrats over who should get the key post.

Reyes will occupy a key position for Democrats seeking to use their newfound majority status to challenge the Bush administration on a range of national security issues, including conduct of the war in Iraq and the capture and interrogation of terrorism suspects abroad.

"One of the frustrations that I have felt has been a propensity for Congress to be a rubber stamp to just about anything the administration has proposed," Reyes said in an interview yesterday. "I intend to be much more aggressive."

His appointment comes amid signs of a shake-up on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Senate aides said GOP leaders plan to remove Kanas Sen. Pat Roberts as the top Republican on the panel. Possible replacements include Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch and Virginia Sen. John W. Warner, who is to step down as head of the Senate Armed Services Committee. A Roberts spokeswoman would not comment.

In selecting Reyes -- widely viewed as a compromise candidate -- Pelosi sought to quiet a controversy over her handling of personnel issues in assembling her leadership team. Pelosi, of California, had drawn criticism from some of her Democratic colleagues for deciding to bypass two more senior members of the panel -- Reps. Jane Harman of California and Alcee L. Hastings of Florida -- who had lobbied aggressively for the job.

Harman, the senior Democrat on the committee, was pushed aside in part because of a political feud with Pelosi. Hastings was rejected largely over ethics concerns. Before being elected to Congress, Hastings was forced to step down from a position as a federal judge in Florida after being impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate of conspiring to accept a bribe from two defendants convicted of racketeering.

Harman was viewed by some Democrats as being too reluctant to criticize the Bush administration over Iraq. Reyes, unlike Harman, voted against the war in a key 2002 vote.

In a sign that Democrats are eager to shift the focus away from the acrimonious competition for the chairmanship, Harman praised the selection of Reyes, saying he brings "great experience" to the position because of his years on the Intelligence and Armed Services committees, as well as his career in border enforcement.

Reyes has served on the committee since 2001, earning a reputation for diligence in focusing on border security and domestic threats. But current and former congressional aides said Reyes has yet to acquire a deep understanding of the issues and inner workings of the sprawling U.S. intelligence community.

Reyes will be expected by Democrats to carry out an aggressive oversight agenda, and to bring scrutiny to an array of classified intelligence operations and programs launched by the Bush administration.

In recent years, the House Intelligence Committee has been less aggressive than its Senate counterpart in investigating intelligence failures including erroneous prewar claims about Iraq's alleged stockpiles of weapons. At the same time, classified intelligence operations authorized by President Bush have been exposed in the press, including secret transfers of terror suspects overseas and the wiretapping of international phone calls made by U.S. citizens.

Reyes said he intends to examine these intelligence programs and others. "I think in general terms we have seen the erosion of what our traditional American values are in terms of techniques that are used to interrogate, secret prisons, wiretapping of American citizens," he said.

Reyes was elected to Congress in 1996 after a 26-year career in the U.S. Border Patrol, where he was sector chief in El Paso, Texas. He is also a Vietnam War veteran who earned a Purple Heart for injuries that left him without hearing in his right ear.

Greg Miller writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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