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Prospects for Streamlining Congressional Oversight of Intelligence Remain Dim  - 2004-08-26

Although the U.S. Congress is in recess this month, congressional committees have been busy holding hearings on the recommendations put forward by the September 11 commission, aimed at preventing another terrorist attack. Among its proposals, the commission is calling on Congress to undertake reforms to strengthen its oversight responsibility, a plan the lawmaking body does not appear eager to embrace.

Congress has been quick to begin work on the commission's recommendations relating to the executive branch, particularly the call for a national intelligence director and a counter-terrorism center.

But Congress has done little, if anything, on the commission's proposal for Congress to reform the way it oversees how the administration collects, analyzes and disseminates intelligence.

The commission has criticized congressional oversight of intelligence and homeland security as "dysfunctional."

A key part of the problem, according to the report, is that there are so many congressional committees involved in oversight of the Department of Homeland Security and the 15 agencies that deal with intelligence.

Commission Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton notes that there are 88 congressional panels alone that have jurisdiction over homeland security. "Eighty-eight subcommittees, that really is absurd," he said.

Commission Chairman Thomas Kean is equally critical, saying having so many committees dealing with homeland security is counter-productive.

"That does not mean oversight at all, really," he said. "What it does mean is that people who should be spending their time protecting us all are spending an enormous amount of time testifying before a whole vast majority of committees."

Indeed, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge says he and his staff have testified on Capitol Hill at least 140 times in the past year, taking them away from their anti-terrorism responsibilities.

Since the commission released its recommendations last month, at least nine congressional committees have drafted legislation relating to reforming the intelligence community. Critics say such duplication can perpetuate a waste of time and effort.

The commission is proposing that Congress reduce the number of intelligence oversight committees and panels to just one in both the House and Senate, or a joint House-Senate committee. It is also proposing that each chamber have just one committee for homeland security.

But that may be easier said than done.

Richard Semiatin, a political science professor at American University, says lawmakers whose committees deal with homeland security and intelligence are going to be reluctant to relinquish their oversight turf, which involves tens of billions of dollars in annual spending.

"The power in Congress is held by senior members, and they have a vested interest in maintaining the system that keeps them in power," he said. "As a result of that, they do not want to make changes that essentially might defuse or dissipate the power they maintain."

Senator Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat who serves on the Government Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over some homeland security and intelligence issues, is even more blunt. "My guess is that the committees on which we serve here in the Senate and in the House [are not] ready for reform," he said.

Professor Semiatin says bureaucratic realities also make congressional reform difficult.

"It is not just about protecting turf, but how committees are created, such as the Judiciary Committee, which will deal with legal constitutional issues, which homeland security deals with, including privacy issues; transportation issues, in the Transportation Committee, also overlap with homeland security," he said. "So there are a myriad of committees whose jurisdiction actually overlaps what homeland security does. And that in itself is a big bureaucratic problem."

While Professor Semiatin believes lawmakers will implement high profile reforms, including the establishment of a national intelligence director, he is not optimistic they will reform congressional oversight.

He adds that there will be little public backlash if Congress does not streamline its oversight responsibilities, saying Americans for the most part have little interest in what he calls "the internal machinations" of how Congress works.