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New House intelligence leaders bridge the bipartisan aisle

By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 31, 2011; 6:47 PM

From the unrest in Egypt to the ongoing threat from WikiLeaks to the prospect of budget cuts, the U.S. intelligence community is tackling a host of challenges. On Capitol Hill, two new overseers will be watching.

The House Select Committee on Intelligence now has Reps. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) serving as chairman and ranking member, respectively. Both bring something relatively unusual to the panel: a law enforcement background and a desire to work together across the aisle.

In separate interviews last week, the two said they had discussed building a relationship based on trust and avoiding the political battles that have hampered the committee in recent years on issues such as interrogation policies and whether the CIA lied to Congress about a secret assassination program.

" 'Dysfunctional' may be too strong a word, but it's very hard to do the real work of the committee when everything becomes a partisan fight," Rogers said. "We're not going to do that anymore. . . . I think the prestige of the committee has waned."

Before being elected to the Michigan Senate, Rogers was an Army officer and then an FBI special agent. Before serving on the Baltimore County Council and as Baltimore County executive, Ruppersberger was a county prosecutor. Both men have investigated corruption and organized crime, and bring that experience to bear in their new positions.

"We both focus more on the teamwork," Ruppersberger said. "In law enforcement we call it the 'strike force' concept. . . . You have turf [battles] wherever you go: NSA versus CIA. There's Homeland Security versus FBI. State police versus whatever. In the strike force concept, you bring the players in together."

Ruppersberger added, "We both feel very strongly about congressional oversight. . . . If they break the law, they're going to be held accountable. If they ask for money, they're going to be held accountable."

They tease each other regularly. Ruppersberger likes to suggest Rogers is a wannabe prosecutor. They are planning to get together with their wives for dinner, and also hope to take some official fact-finding trips together.

"We've got a good working relationship and good social relationship as well," Rogers said. "I don't know if that happens that much anymore."

In ways both large and small, the intelligence committee is a breed apart from other panels.

It meets in a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility built to prevent electronic eavesdropping, deep underground in the Capitol Visitor Center. (The committee previously met on the fourth floor of the Capitol; visitors to the building wouldn't know that there is a fourth floor, because the buttons in the public elevators go up only to three.)

Most of the panel's hearings are closed. The committee doesn't hire interns - few college students have the requisite security clearances - but it does have a vault. The office door looks like a giant safe, and lawmakers use their fingerprints to enter.

Rogers' and Ruppersberger's new positions entail some lifestyle changes. Both men need to be reachable 24 hours a day, and they must have secure telephone lines installed in their homes. Rogers said his staff sees him a lot less often now - "You punch out for big chunks of the day" - as he sequesters himself in the committee office to read the latest classified reports.

The committee has been receiving regular briefings on the unfolding situation in Egypt, and Rogers and Ruppersberger get additional information as members of the "Gang of Eight" - a group that includes the top Republican and Democrat from the House and Senate intelligence panels as well as the top two party leaders from each chamber.

The panel is now operating in a climate of fiscal austerity. Even the Pentagon budget, sacrosanct for the past several years, is now expected to shrink.

So should the overall U.S. intelligence budget - which has more than doubled since 2001 to its current annual level of $80 billion - also be subject to cuts? Both men responded that "everything is on the table," though they emphasized the importance of judging each program on its own merits.

"You don't come in and say, 'I'm cutting everybody 5 percent,' " Ruppersberger said.

Rogers agreed, saying, "I am not going to cut anything that impacts the mission, but there's a difference between 'have to have' and 'nice to have.' "

Much of the real authority over intelligence spending resides with the Appropriations Committee, and Rogers said he hopes to "incorporate" some senior members of that panel into his own by inviting them to sit in on some intelligence committee meetings and briefings.

Separately, Ruppersberger - whose Maryland district includes the National Security Agency and the U.S. Cyber Command - is urging House leaders to create a select committee to handle cybersecurity issues, a panel that he hopes "has some meat, has some power, and with power has to come money."

For all that he and his Democratic counterpart have in common, Rogers recognizes that they will have some "philosophical differences." "We're not naive," he says.

And Ruppersberger knows that he and his party are in the minority in the House.

"He's going to have his point of view, and I'll have my point of view, and we'll debate it," Ruppersberger said. "Now, unfortunately for me, I'm going to lose all the votes."

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