By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 2, 2006
House Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) named Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.) to chair the House intelligence committee yesterday, skipping over the two most senior Democrats on the panel to hand the sensitive post to a Vietnam War veteran and former U.S. Border Patrol agent.
Pelosi signaled weeks ago that she would not elevate the panel's top Democrat, Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), to the chairmanship and announced this past week that she would also pass over Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.), who could not overcome the stigma of his 1988 impeachment and 1989 removal from a federal judgeship.
Reyes, a five-term House member from El Paso, is a well-liked Democrat. And now, as a key party spokesman on national defense issues, he becomes perhaps the most visible Latino in Congress.
"Congressman Silvestre Reyes has impeccable national security credentials," Pelosi said. "When tough questions are required, whether they relate to intelligence shortcomings before the 9/11 attacks or the war in Iraq, or to the quality of intelligence on Iran or North Korea, he does not hesitate to ask them."
Reyes signaled that he will use his post to confront the Bush administration on national security and intelligence issues that he said Republicans have shied away from.
"On warrantless tapping, on their policy on detention and interrogation, their policy on secret prisons, all of those have undermined our position in the world," Reyes said in an interview yesterday. "And we have been complicit in Congress by rubber-stamping everything the administration has proposed."
"It's a good, solid appointment," said former congressman Timothy J. Roemer (D-Ind.), a member of the bipartisan commission that examined the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
But Reyes has been linked to past controversies. The inspector general of the government's General Services Administration looked into the serious failures of a $239 million network of cameras and sensors along the Mexican and Canadian borders, an investigation that focused in part on the contractor's employment of Reyes's daughter Rebecca.
Reyes has been a key backer of the system and its contractor, International Microwave Corp. Shortly after its 1999 contract award, the firm hired Rebecca Reyes to serve as a liaison to what was then the Immigration and Naturalization Service. She ultimately became IMC's vice president for contracts. IMC also hired her brother, Silvestre Reyes Jr., as a technician on the program, known as the Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System, or ISIS.
Rep. Reyes said that he never interceded on his daughter's behalf or with U.S. officials to help her company win a contract, and that he backed the firm's search for funding only because he supports the system of border sensors and cameras. And, he said, the investigation was concluded with no charges of improprieties by the company, his daughter or himself.
The choice of a House intelligence chairman has been a difficult one for Democrats. Pelosi's decision to skip over Hastings angered the Congressional Black Caucus, prompting some consideration of Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.). Bishop, an African American, had been bumped from the committee in 2001 to make room for Harman, who returned to the House after an unsuccessful gubernatorial bid.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus launched its own campaign for Reyes, a past caucus chairman. While African Americans will chair four House committees next year, including the powerful Ways and Means and Judiciary committees, Latinos were slated to head only one, the small-business panel.
"We felt we needed more of a presence than that," said Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.). "What the leadership has to understand is, as more of us are integrated into high-profile leadership positions, the more we can help in the long run to solidify this constituency with the party. That can only help the Democratic Party."
After the Vietnam War, Reyes served with the Border Patrol for a quarter of a century, from Texas to Georgia, rising to chief patrol agent in El Paso, where he cut the flow of illegal immigrants by more than half, an achievement that propelled him to the House.
Reyes's task now will be to balance the need for bipartisanship on a sensitive committee with the demands of many Democrats, including Pelosi, to push the Bush administration hard on its program of warrantless wiretapping of terrorism suspects, its network of secret CIA prisons and the scandals left largely unexplored by Republicans, such as the role of intelligence officials in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.
"How do you make a committee that's supposed to work in a bipartisan way work that way and keep the support of the caucus?" Roemer asked. "That is a delicate balance."
Staff writer Shailagh Murray contributed to this report.