WASHINGTON – When it comes to counterterror strategy, maverick Rep. Curt Weldon (search) tells it as he sees it — often to the extreme discomfort of fellow Republican lawmakers and the Bush administration.
But his candor in a new book accusing the CIA (search) of ignoring terror information has called Weldon's credibility into question as he is being considered to chair the House Homeland Security Committee.
As the committee's vice chairman, Weldon, R-Pa., is among a small number of Republicans competing to ascend to the panel's top job as early as next month. The new chairman would replace Rep. Christopher Cox (search), R-Calif., who is awaiting Senate confirmation to head the Securities and Exchange Commission.
"Homeland security has been a part of me," said Weldon, a former fire chief who was elected to the House in 1986.
"I would run the committee in a way that is the legitimate role of the Congress, but in a constructive way," Weldon said in a recent interview. "And if that means I have to push — and sometimes in a system like this, that's what you have to do — it's pushing for what everyone wants, which is a safer country."
Weldon has clashed with the administration before with forays into foreign policy. A planned congressional trip he was to lead to communist North Korea was canceled by the White House in October 2003. And in January 2004, the administration initially refused to provide a military airplane for another Weldon-led trip to Libya.
He has, however, led several congressional delegations to Pyongyang and Tripoli, and generally is considered an expert on foreign affairs and U.S.-Russian relations in particular.
Weldon's book, "Countdown to Terror," has angered the authorities that the House panel relies upon for counterterrorism information. Intelligence veterans, including current officials, dismiss allegations in the book, which details threat information provided by an Iranian man code-named "Ali."
Weldon berates the CIA for disregarding Ali and his information, including a May 2003 tip that Iran planned to fly a hijacked Canadian airplane into a U.S. nuclear reactor identified only as "Sea." Weldon said the plant was the Seabrook, N.H., nuclear facility outside Boston, where an attack could kill hundreds of thousands of people.
Three months later, authorities arrested 19 Muslim men in Toronto who were suspected of being part of a terror cell — what Weldon calls proof of Ali's credibility. The accusations were later lowered to immigration charges
CIA spokesman Paul Gimigiliano said the agency looked into those issues — "and looked into them more than once."
Bill Murray, a former CIA station chief based in Paris, said he met with Ali to investigate his claims, but the Iranian refused to provide enough information for the agency to determine his credibility.
"Everything he said was always sensational, unique, improbable on the surface in most cases and unverifiable. And none of it ever panned out," said Murray. He said he was shocked when he saw Weldon's book, which he called "a slap to the professional integrity of every single person that does this kind of work and our efforts to try to do it right."
Several other Republicans are pursuing the chance to head the Homeland Security Committee, which was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and gained permanent status this year. Among them is Rep. Don Young of Alaska, who would have to vacate his chairmanship of the House Transportation Committee.
Also in the running is Rep. Peter King of New York, who Democrats believe would be more politically moderate than Young and more low-key than Weldon.
"It's the most important job in Congress," King said. "It's so important that the committee have credibility, and the committee have status. Otherwise we're not going to be taken seriously."
Those who have watched Weldon over the years are divided on what kind of chairman he would be. But nearly all agree that he likely would provide strong — some say overly demanding — oversight to the Homeland Security Department that is still struggling to organize after its creation two years ago.
"He'd be a phenomenal chairman," said Frank J. Cilluffo, a former Bush administration adviser who now heads homeland security programs at George Washington University. "Certainly he calls it as he sees it, but he was a Paul Revere on the issue before 9/11. He's not a 9/12-er."
P.J. Crowley, a special assistant to former President Clinton for national security affairs, agreed that Weldon's bombastic style is "useful up to a point."
"But ultimately, you've got to turn around and act meaningful legislation in concert with the executive community and intelligence community," Crowley said. "Certainly, no one denies that there are still serious shortcomings in the intelligence community. But you have to work with the intelligence community that you have — not one that you might dream up."
Weldon said he aspires to chair either the Homeland Security or Armed Services committee, and is still deciding which he'd rather pursue.
"I'm going to work the issue regardless of what my position is," he said.
"The worst part of my job is to sit in the living room of a family whose son or daughter came home in a body bag and tell them that we did all that we could to prevent that from happening," Weldon said. "None of the bureaucrats, none of the pencil pushers, none of the advisers to the president have to do that. And I'm not going to give up my responsibilities to those families. I'm going to push."