NEW YORK – Lawmakers and intelligence community members are already sizing up the mild-mannered Midwesterner slated to take the chairmanship of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and while he has received much praise, some worry that his credulity of intelligence efforts may be too indulgent.
The unspoken word is that Sen. Pat Roberts, the first-term Republican senator from Kansas, will take the committee helm when the Senate reorganizes in January. His spokeswoman said nothing is official until he is selected by his peers, most likely in January.
But with elections a mere formality, the evaluation game has begun, and many are wondering whether Roberts, who has been quick to criticize his colleagues for intelligence failures prior to Sept. 11, will use the same rigor on the intelligence agencies and President Bush's conduct of the war against terror.
"I believe Roberts will do a great job," Sen. Richard Shelby, the ranking Republican on the panel who is expected to head the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, told Foxnews.com. The Alabaman headed the intelligence committee before the Senate shift of power last year.
"He's an experienced legislator, he was a veteran of the House … he brings a lot of experience to the job," Shelby said.
On Wednesday, Shelby, outgoing Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham, D-Fla., and other members of the joint committee probing Sept. 11 intelligence failures released recommendations on how the federal government should reorganize itself when it comes to intelligence gathering and information sharing.
Roberts' new committee will have to deal with implementing all of those recommendations, putting a real challenge to the senator whose focus has traditionally been agriculture.
Since Sept. 11, Roberts has been a vocal -- albeit low-key -- critic of U.S. intelligence failures surrounding the terrorist attacks. He has also been a staunch defender of the CIA.
"He will not be as publicly critical of individuals, necessarily," said Jay Farrar, a military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Shelby, for example, has made no secret about the fact that he blames CIA Director George Tenet, NSA Director Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden and Clinton administration FBI Director Louis Freeh for many intelligence failures.
"Pat Roberts will not do that in the same light," Farrar said. "He will begin working more quietly behind the scenes with the intelligence community … but he will not stand by and let it continue to go the direction it has gone and if he doesn't see corrections, he will make public comments about it."
Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University and congressional expert, said it may take Roberts some time just to get acquainted with the intricacies of in-depth intelligence issues.
"I think there's a concern on the part of some people that because Shelby's been so outspoken and he'll be moving over to banking, that somehow the sort of watchdog role isn't going to be fulfilled," Baker said.
"There's going to have to be some learning. I'm not sure Roberts is going to get right in there and start barking … But he's a serious guy," he said.
Roberts' background in intelligence is limited. Before winning a Senate seat in 1996, Roberts served eight terms in the House, where he chaired the House Agriculture Committee during the 104th Congress. He also led congressional reforms of the House Bank and Post Office.
Roberts is an advocate of strong health and education systems, free trade, increased investment in science and technology, focused foreign policy and a strong military.
He has been a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry; Armed Services; and Select Intelligence committees. During the 107th Congress, he was the ranking Republican of the Select Ethics Committee.
Roberts also is the ranking member of the Armed Services Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee, which may give him a boost.
The intelligence committee can't make a move without the blessing of the Armed Services Committee, which approves defense funding, from which intelligence money comes.
"The fact that Roberts is a senior Republican on that committee will help him," Farrar said.
Roberts first seemed to take an interest in intelligence issues after the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen in October 2000.
Following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Roberts became an advocate of enhancing state and federal cybersecurity.
He also criticized the leadership of the joint House-Senate panel investigating intelligence failures for exercising draconian control of the panel and forbidding the staff from speaking to other lawmakers about the status of the investigation.
This criticism mounted after Graham and Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., the House Intelligence chairman, asked the FBI to interview panel members to locate the source of a June media leak that revealed an Arabic-language communication that had been intercepted by the National Security Agency on Sept. 10, 2001, but not translated until Sept. 12, 2001.
It said: "Tomorrow is zero hour," and "the match is about to begin."
"You think members should have input into a report they're going to be putting their names on? Oh what an idea. Not to mention that we're investigating the FBI and the FBI is investigating us! How silly is that?" he asked the St. Petersburg Times.
In September of this year, Roberts questioned whether the Sept. 11 panel's hearings should all be public until members got a better picture of what was going on.
He has been quick to defend the president when critics said Bush could have somehow prevented the attacks that left about 3,000 people dead.
In a television interview earlier this month, Roberts called it "unconscionable" that anyone would "insinuate that the president somehow knew about this and then sat back and did nothing."
Roberts has also berated his own committee for producing reports on Sept. 11 full of what he called "gotcha charges" meant to grab news headlines. He said congressional overseers shared as much responsibility as the government agencies for underestimating the terrorist threat.
The CIA is welcoming Roberts to the position.
"We work closely with the intelligence oversight committees, we value oversight and we look forward to working with him," said a CIA spokesman.
Intelligence experts say no matter what background Roberts has, congressional oversight of the intelligence community has nowhere to go but up.
"I believe prior to Sept. 11, 2001, the oversight committees were doing an awful job," said Gary Aldridge, a former FBI agent during the Clinton administration. "One can only hope that the new committee chairman will accept that and take a stronger position with respect to those agencies and what they're claiming and hold their feet to the fire."