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New Intel Panel Gets to Work — Quietly

The House Select Intelligence Oversight Panel, only four months into its existence, is meeting and holding regular hearings, but in characteristic classified fashion — nobody has heard much about it.

“I’ve been unusually faithful about attending,” said Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), a panel member. “But no one would ever know.”

The creation of the hybrid panel, made up of members of the Intelligence and Appropriations committees, was trumpeted by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) after Democrats won control of the House as part of their reform efforts to implement 9/11 commission recommendations that Republicans had failed to enact.

The panel does not match the recommendation of the commission, which advocated creating one committee with both authorizing and appropriating authority over intelligence money to streamline the process, but that idea died quickly among turf-conscious committee chairmen.

The 13-member oversight panel, headed up by Chairman Rush Holt (D-N.J.) and ranking member Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), meets “at least” weekly, according to Holt, and usually on Mondays. A meeting last week included the director of national intelligence and the CIA director, one lawmaker in attendance said. This past Monday the panel met to review issues related to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

The panel has no independent press operation and has put out no public statements on its work.

The oversight panel is considered part of the Appropriations Committee and is jointly staffed by Appropriations and Intelligence aides. According to House rules, it has two charges: to conduct oversight of the classified budgets for the nation’s intelligence agencies and to make funding recommendations to the Appropriations subcommittee on Defense, which funds them.

While Holt has been given high marks by his colleagues for his management of the panel, the committee itself has so far received a lukewarm reception.

“Holt has taken this very seriously. He’s been very bipartisan and very inclusive,” said LaHood, who nonetheless said of the panel: “We’re basically looking at the budget. We’re not doing much. It’s basically another level of bureaucracy.”

A member of the panel who spoke on background said the biggest problem is that its work is “a lot of duplication,” because the oversight hearings and meetings with intelligence community officials also are taking place at the Defense subcommittee and Intelligence Committee levels.

“A good portion of what I’ve learned is somewhat redundant, but my attitude is — I don’t mind the repetition,” added Frelinghuysen, who also sits on the Appropriations subcommittee on Defense.

Since all members of the oversight panel sit on either Appropriations or Intelligence, a majority are getting the same information twice. As a result, another Member noted that “attendance has been light.”

Three members of the panel said subcommittee on Defense Chairman John Murtha (D-Pa.) and ranking member Bill Young (R-Fla.) rarely attend the oversight panel meetings anymore. “They went to the first couple” of meetings, said one lawmaker. “But they don’t go so much anymore. Why should they? They’ve already heard it.”

Holt countered that the sometimes duplicative nature of the panel has its benefits. “Partly because we’re going back and forth, all of us, between the Appropriations and Intelligence work we’re able to ask better questions and put some clout behind our questions,” he said.

Holt added that the work of the oversight panel has supplemented and improved the Intelligence Committee’s work.

“Under current leadership, I see directly that the House Intelligence Committee is conducting more oversight and more forceful oversight than has existed previously in my experience,” he said. “But I can also trace some of that improved oversight directly to the activities of our panel. This new panel is to see that Congress exerts better oversight; it doesn’t mean we have to do it all ourselves.”

The panel is not formally tasked with issuing any progress reports or recommendations, so there’s no metric to determine how effective it is in its own right. If Democrats retain a majority in the next Congress, it will be up to Pelosi to decide if its existence should continue, although Holt said the panel is “not meant to” expire. Pelosi is a former member of both the Appropriations and Intelligence committees.

Timothy Sample, president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance and a former staff director at the House Intelligence Committee under former Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.), said it was too early to determine if the oversight panel is a good idea.

“There’s a lot of questions and I think the jury is out on that committee because it’s not quite what the [9/11] commission had in mind,” Sample said. “I’ve talked to Chairman Holt on a couple of occasions and I think that he has some good ideas on making both the oversight process work more effectively and linking it up better to the appropriations process, but it’s a little too early to tell how successful he’ll be at doing that.”

Sample said the best way to determine how effective it will be is to see how closely intelligence appropriations bills will mirror intelligence authorization bills. Neither piece of legislation is publicly available, but they are privately scrutinized within Congress and the authorized intelligence community. “Just because the process isn’t public does not mean there is not vigorous oversight going on,” Sample said.

The panel does not appear to be conducting oversight into Member earmark requests on either the Appropriations or Intelligence committees, both of which are distinguished by a high rate of sitting and former Members under federal investigation.

In the past two years, three GOP Members of the Intelligence Committee have been caught up in federal investigations: former Rep. Duke Cunningham (Calif.), who is doing jail time, and ex-Rep. Jim Gibbons — now the governor of Nevada — and Rep. Rick Renzi (Ariz.) are both current targets of federal probes.

Holt said the oversight panel’s job is separate from the high rate of Republican lawmakers hit with corruption charges related to work on the Intelligence panel. But another member of the panel did not rule out that kind of work in the future.

“Is it productive in terms of oversight or ferreting out corruption? No,” said one Member, “We haven’t done that, but maybe if [the panel] sticks around we will.”

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