Intelligence Ignorance

Sunday, December 17, 2006

HOUSE SPEAKER-to-be Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has come up with a deft solution to a problem identified by the Sept. 11 commission: the disjointed and inadequate congressional oversight of intelligence. It's not the solution that the commission endorsed, so Ms. Pelosi and the Democrats will take some hits for failing to live up to the letter of their pledge to enact all the commission's recommendations. But her proposal could go a long way toward fixing the dysfunctional organization the panel addressed.

The fundamental problem, for intelligence and other matters, is the separation between committees with substantive authority over particular departments or agencies (authorizers) and those who wield the power of the purse (appropriators). You can guess which executive officials are more responsive to. This problem is exacerbated when it comes to intelligence because its spending has been considered by the appropriations subcommittee responsible for all military spending. That means that intelligence issues don't get enough attention and that intelligence spending priorities may be skewed in the direction of military hardware.

To fix this disconnect, the Sept. 11 commission recommended that the House and Senate intelligence committees, either as separate panels or fused into one, be given both substantive and budgetary authority. Not surprisingly, that didn't sit too well with appropriators jealous of ceding any power. The Pelosi compromise would create an intelligence oversight panel within the appropriations committee, responsible for reviewing spending and recommending spending levels. In a key departure, this committee would include not only appropriators but members of the intelligence committee. This is a clever approach that merits serious consideration by the incoming Senate majority leader, Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

We wish we could be as enthusiastic about Ms. Pelosi's choice to head the intelligence committee. In an interview with Congressional Quarterly's, the incoming chairman, Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), exhibited a troubling lack of familiarity with basic knowledge that ought to be expected of someone in that important position. Asked whether al-Qaeda was Sunni or Shiite, Mr. Reyes replied, "Al-Qaeda, they have both . . . Predominantly -- probably Shiite." In fact, al-Qaeda's members are adherents of the Sunni branch of Islam and their viciousness toward Shiites is a key fact of recent Iraqi history. Mr. Reyes also flubbed a question about Hezbollah.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Reyes said he had misunderstood some of the questions but added, "My position is I screwed it up and will admit it and move on from there." As to doubts about his capabilities, he said, "It's my expectation that people, once they get an opportunity to see my work, won't have that doubt."

We hope he's right. In our interview, Mr. Reyes said he was not enthusiastic about some of the recommendations by the Iraq Study Group but couldn't name them. "I can't speak to the specifics, some I was not enthused about in there," he said. "Let me defer until I get my book. I know I tabbed and highlighted it." Mr. Reyes has a steep learning curve ahead.

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