The House intelligence committee: A rare example of bipartisanship

David Ignatius
Opinion writer March 2, 2012

The House intelligence committee used to be one of the meanest snake pits in Congress, a place where members were so busy sniping at each other that they failed to provide effective oversight of the intelligence community. It was a model of what was wrong with Washington.

Amazingly enough, the committee has found its way out of the wilderness under a new chairman and ranking Democrat, Reps. Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican, and C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who is from Maryland’s 2nd District. With their leadership, the House has approved intelligence-authorization bills by lopsided, bipartisan margins the past two fiscal years, after many years when the committee was too divided to pass such legislation.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

“Rogers and Ruppersberger have made bipartisanship work,” says Gen. Mike Hayden, a former CIA director who struggled with the old, dysfunctional system. Back then, he recalls, “the committee was just wild — incredibly contentious and highly politicized. They have worked hard to get it back to business.”

So what produced this little miracle of bipartisanship? That’s the interesting part of the story, because maybe the same process could work elsewhere in gridlock city.

The reset began when Rogers became chairman in January 2011. He came to the job with some interesting credentials: He was a former FBI field agent who had run numerous undercover operations; after joining Congress in 2001, he visited Pakistan’s tribal areas and helped persuade President George W. Bush in 2008 to step up drone attacks there against al-Qaeda.

Rogers’s first move was to go to Ruppersberger and propose a truce. “We can continue this bickering and be dysfunctional — and do a huge disservice to the American people — or we can work it out together,” Rogers remembers telling his colleague.

Ruppersberger, a former prosecutor, was an ideal partner for the ex-FBI agent. “We made a commitment to each other that we would work together and wouldn’t sandbag each other,” says the Democrat.

The two leaders also made some changes among the committee staff, and instructed the aides to brief members jointly. Explains Ruppersberger: “Before, the other side of the aisle was the enemy.”

The new chairman and ranking Democrat had to get buy-in from their members. Rogers held seminars for new members, where Hayden and other intelligence professionals gave briefings. And in bargaining over such contentious issues as cyberspace and detention policy, the leaders found a way to balance the desires of some very liberal Democrats and very conservative Republicans.

Rogers and Ruppersberger wanted less partisan sniping — but also, more aggressive oversight. In this monitoring role, the House committee pushed the CIA to be more aggressive in hunting down shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles in Libya. Rogers was so insistent that the agency brought to Washington a big hammer that had been used to smash the missiles and presented it to the chairman.

One example of improved oversight is that a committee staff member works full time to review covert action plans, and the whole committee meets once a quarter for a closed hearing on this most sensitive topic. An example of pushback on covert action is that the committee warned the administration away from a plan to arm the Libyan rebels.

The House committee has also worked hard to review the complex systems for surveillance from space. After holding 12 closed sessions to explore this arcane subject, it sided with the Obama administration (and against the Senate intelligence committee) in rejecting a plan for an array of small satellites that would be more expensive and less effective than promised. Savings will total more than $10 billion.

When the committee was so deadlocked that it couldn’t pass an authorization bill, it left the field to the Appropriations Committee, which lacked sufficient staff and expertise. Rogers got the authorization process working again, with the House passing the fiscal 2011 legislation by a 392 to 15 vote and the 2012 version, 384 to 14. Rogers also invited three key members of Appropriations to sit on the committee as non-voting members — a clever move that helped achieve the consolidated control over intelligence spending that had been recommended by the 9/11 Commission but remained stillborn until last year.

The two House intelligence leaders also worked with the Senate intelligence committee, which had never been quite as polarized as its House counterpart. The Senate side seems to have been galvanized, as a result.

Bipartisan cooperation is needed throughout Congress, but it’s especially important in the oversight of intelligence. These secret bureaucracies badly need a bracing review. What they got in the past was mostly second-guessing and backbiting. What they have now is real oversight. It’s a welcome change: Let’s hope it spreads.

davidignatius@washpost.com

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