WASHINGTON – Texas Rep. Silvestre Reyes has been chosen to head the House Intelligence Committee when the Democrats take control of Congress in January as his party tries to boost oversight of the intelligence community and get U.S. troops out of Iraq.
House Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi picked the former U.S. Border Patrol agent for the key congressional posting over two other candidates who had more seniority.
The current top Democrat on the committee, California Rep. Jane Harman, was left out in the cold because of political differences with Pelosi. And Rep. Alcee Hastings of Florida was Pelosi's first choice but was squeezed out amid ethical questions.
From his office in El Paso, Texas, Friday, Reyes said he is "honored and pleased" to be considered, and that he thanked Pelosi for choosing him.
Answering reporter's questions, Reyes, 62, sought to deflect concerns about his qualifications to serve because he was not the first candidate, and said he planned on focusing attention on problems his committee will face, including Iraq, the Middle East, the National Security Agency's domestic wiretap program, terrorist detention and interrogation programs.
Reports this week indicate Democrats are not ready to jump on the Sept. 11 Commission recommendation to give congressional intelligence overseers budgetary authority.
"I will be working on both the short term and the long term process of oversight, so that we can get to problems, the toughest issues. And the No. 1 issue for us is Iraq. ... We've got a lot of things to do in terms of oversight and that fall into the purview of the intelligence committee," he said.
Reyes opposed the use of force in Iraq and has joined other Democrats in criticizing the administration for intelligence failures during the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, according to a 2005 analysis by the National Journal of Reyes' legislative record. He also has opposed embedding reporters with military units.
Speaking to reporters Friday, Reyes also said the committee will be help define the balance between security and civil rights.
"I don't think anyone debates that we're in a very dangerous world. I think we need to be pragmatic in the way that we approach the things that will keep it safe, but making sure that we don't forfeit our rights, guarantees under the Constitution. That's a fine line that we need to walk," Reyes said.
Cold Shoulder for Harman?
Pelosi issued a statement Friday morning praising Reyes for his "impeccable national security credentials," while offering an olive branch to Hastings and Harman.
"When tough questions are required, whether they relate to intelligence shortcomings before the 9/11 attacks or the war in Iraq, or to the quality on intelligence on Iran or North Korea, he does not hesitate to ask them," she said of Reyes.
Pelosi said Harman had "served with distinction in her four years" as the committee's top Democrat, and said Hastings brought "deep patriotism and dedication" to the committee.
"I offer my sincere congratulations to my friend and colleague Silver Reyes on being named chair of the House Intelligence Committee," Harman said in her own statement, adding, "I will do everything I can to make the transition a smooth one."
Most committee assignments already have been set, but the political struggle over the intelligence committee assignment lingered. It also came on the heels of what many saw as Pelosi's first political misstep, when she publicly endorsed her friend, Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha, over the odds-on favorite, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland. Hoyer crushed Murtha in a closed vote for the Democrats' No. 2 House position.
Harman's leadership term expires this year, but Pelosi could have chosen to reappoint Harman. News reports have detailed a cooling relationship between the two California congresswomen, and Pelosi favored Hastings for the job in the face of heavy lobbying from the Congressional Black Caucus.
A media furor has erupted over Hastings' record from the late 1980s, when as a federal judge, he was accused of plotting to accept a bribe in exchange for giving light sentences to two convicts in a criminal case. Eventually, he was acquitted by a federal jury but was indicted by the Senate, impeached by the House, and forced from the judgeship.
Hastings launched a public campaign to clear the air, but in the end it failed. He released a statement this week after Pelosi said she wouldn't offer him the job.
"Sorry, haters, God is not finished with me yet," Hastings wrote.
Reyes' appointment was received well in the corners of Washington. Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte said Reyes' "comprehensive understanding of the intelligence community and the challenges it faces ideally qualifies him."
National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Executive Director Arturo Vargas issued a statement saying the appointment "means that the leadership of the 110th Congress' most critical committees will be in very able hands" and called it a "significant advancement in the political development of the Latino community."
Outgoing chairman Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., and the Congressional Black Caucus also issued congratulatory statements.
"The threats and challenges facing our great nation know no political bounds. It is this reality that I hope will guide current and incoming Members of the House Intelligence Committee in its work to secure America's future," Hoekstra added.
Reyes: Border Fence a 'Stupid Idea'
Reyes, whose nickname is "Silver," served in the Army from 1966-68 during the Vietnam War, including 13 months in Vietnam. The helicopter crew chief and gunner received a Purple Heart for being wounded in service. He worked as a Border Patrol agent from 1969 until 1995. He was elected to Congress in 1996 and will start his sixth term in January.
Reyes said he intended to ramp up the committee's oversight responsibilities, but hinted that it might not be heavily burdened with excessive investigations.
"The ultimate accountability occurred at the midterm election," Reyes said.
Reyes is former chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and said Friday he would continue to push issues of concern to Hispanics voters.
The National Journal analysis also showed that he favored economic stabilization for Mexico to thwart illegal immigration. For that reason, he has opposed placing sanctions on Mexico for its part in the illegal drug trade, saying it could disrupt other parts of the Mexican economy. He favors the guest worker program supported by President Bush.
Reyes also singled out another Republican-led idea, an additional 700-mile border fence recently funded by Congress.
"I don't hesitate to call it a stupid idea," Reyes said. "There are better ways to invest money."
In an interview with the Associated Press in November, Reyes said he also wants to look at the role of intelligence three years after the war in Iraq began, as well as the state of traditional spy craft — also called "human intelligence" by intelligence professionals — versus "signal intelligence" gathered by satellites and electronic surveillance.
"We haven't required or haven't had the administration give us the details, evaluation or plan of how these classic programs are functioning," Reyes said.
Reyes also has has made positive comments about Robert Gates, the former CIA director who has been nominated to replace Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Reyes doesn't come into an easy job.
And in October, Harman released a report on the committee's investigation on the congressional bribery case of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham — but she did so without Republican approval, infuriating committee chairman Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan.
In retaliation, Hoekstra took aim at a Democratic aide, suspending his access to classified information. Hoekstra accused the aide of leaking a controversial intelligence estimate, although the aide since has been cleared of any wrongdoing.
Reyes told the Associated Press that relations among committee members "can't get worse. It has gotten as bad as it could."