As the Senate moves to realign its oversight of U.S. intelligence operations, the Senate Armed Services Committee is on the verge of losing out in the jurisdictional turf battle.
A consensus is emerging — among both members of the Armed Services panel and those on the bipartisan working group charged with reforming Congressional intelligence oversight — to strip the powerful panel of its function as an overseer of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee’s work.
Currently, the Intelligence panel must in effect get the blessing of the Armed Services Committee before bringing the yearly intelligence authorization to the floor. Many Intelligence members said this hampers their independence.
That situation, coupled with the 9/11 commission’s recommendation that Congress consolidate oversight in the Intelligence panel, has led many Members to conclude that the only way to strengthen that committee is to weaken Armed Services’ hand.
“I think certainly the pressures are in that direction,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), an Armed Services member. “But there is resistance to any change.”
It is still unclear how, or when, the changes may be implemented, but Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who co-chair the working group, pledged Wednesday to bring a proposal for Congressional reform to the Senate floor sometime the week of Sept. 27 — right around the time a proposal to create a national intelligence director and restructure intelligence agencies is expected to be on the floor.
Still, even Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) acknowledged that the tide appears to be turning against his bid to keep control over the bulk of intelligence authorizations.
Of the possibility that Armed Services would lose jurisdiction, Warner said, “I recognize that. I’m prepared not to participate in any turf battles and do what’s right for the country.”
Warner also said he has withdrawn his objection to eliminating the eight-year term limits for members of the Intelligence panel. Abolishing term limits for Intelligence members was a key recommendation of the 9/11 commission.
“I couldn’t care less as to who the losers and winners are, including myself,” Warner said.
Armed Services ranking member Carl Levin (D-Mich.) also indicated his acceptance of the panel’s impending loss of jurisdiction.
“Provided it’s done well, I don’t think it’s going to be an issue,” Levin said. “There’s got to be a strengthening of the Intelligence Committee.”
Both Warner and Levin also serve on the Intelligence panel.
While Warner is still insisting that Armed Services have access to intelligence data that directly affects soldiers in war zones, several Members suggested that Armed Services didn’t do much intelligence oversight to begin with.
“The reality is, from my years on the Armed Services Committee, we [paid] very little attention to intelligence,” McCain said. There were “hardly any hearings on it. And I would think we’re pretty busy just with the military side of things.”
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), the vice chairman of Senate Intelligence, said it only makes sense to strip the Armed Services panel of its jurisdiction. Rockefeller noted that the Armed Services panel has only two full-time staffers to deal with what they say is 85 percent of the nation’s intelligence budget.
Rockefeller indicated that stronger oversight could be carried out by the Intelligence panel, which has nearly 40 staff members and just completed a comprehensive review of the intelligence used in the run-up to the war on Iraq.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who sits on Armed Services, added that both the committee and the Defense Department “could be the big losers” in a reorganization of Congressional oversight — but that he views such changes as a necessary step.
“This is an opportunity to do something new and different that would be more businesslike,” Graham said of the proposed reforms.
Still, Graham echoed Warner’s concerns that “war fighters” not be disadvantaged by any restructuring of Congressional oversight, nor by any reorganization of federal intelligence agencies.
Indeed, it is likely that McConnell and Reid will make some attempt to keep Armed Services in the loop on intelligence related to tactical military operations, especially since many Defense Department intelligence agencies are likely to remain under the Pentagon’s purview even though they may report jointly to a new national intelligence director and the Defense secretary.
Still to be decided is what may be the biggest jurisdictional hurdle for the working group: whether to give a newly strengthened Intelligence panel authority over the intelligence budget’s purse strings. That move would be unprecedented and could diminish the power of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“Right now, the CIA cuts off the Armed Services Committee and the Intelligence Committee, and the only people they pay attention to are [House and Senate Appropriations Committee chairmen], because they know … they’ll get what they want and they can tell the rest of us to fly a kite,” said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), a working group member who sits on the Intelligence panel.
While Lott has been skeptical of the working group’s ability to give one panel both authorizing and appropriating power, McCain said it was the only way to ensure a strong Intelligence Committee.
“What’s happened to the Armed Services Committee is that the appropriations bills are passed first, which reduces dramatically the relevancy of authorizing legislation,” McCain said.