Saturday, December 02, 2006

Next Chairman for Intelligence Opposed War

The New York Times
Next Chairman for Intelligence Opposed War

WASHINGTON, Dec. 1 — Representative Nancy Pelosi, the incoming House speaker, sent a strong new signal on Friday that Democrats intend to confront the White House by naming a Texas congressman who opposed the war in Iraq as the next chairman of the House intelligence committee.

This choice, of Representative Silvestre Reyes to head one of Congress’s most important committees, ended weeks of closed-door lobbying and public posturing among Democrats who had been competing for the post. By choosing Mr. Reyes, a former Border Patrol agent and Vietnam combat veteran, Mrs. Pelosi passed over the panel’s top Democrat, Representative Jane Harman of California, a more hawkish figure who voted to authorize the war in Iraq and a political rival with whom Mrs. Pelosi has long had a stormy relationship.

Mr. Reyes, an affable West Texan, has a far lower profile in national security circles than does Ms. Harman, an outspoken and strong-willed centrist who has become a regular guest on Sunday talk shows since the Sept. 11 attacks.

But Mrs. Pelosi chose him over Ms. Harman in part because he has repeatedly taken a more combative stance toward Bush administration policies like the invasion of Iraq, military tribunals for terrorist suspects, and the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance program.

Mr. Reyes voted against authorizing President Bush to go to war with Iraq, and in June he said that the failures in Iraq “cry out for oversight.”

In September, Mr. Reyes blasted the White House’s justifications for the National Security Agency wiretapping program.

“I take very seriously our obligation to provide the president with the tools that he needs to provide for national security,” he said, “but I also reject the notion that the authorization for use of military force allows the president to ignore the Fourth Amendment and conduct warrantless surveillance on American citizens.”

The choice of an intelligence committee chairman had emerged as the second controversial decision in the early leadership tenure of Mrs. Pelosi. Committee chairmanships are normally decided by seniority, but it is Mrs. Pelosi’s prerogative to choose someone else.

Last month, the Democratic caucus soundly rejected Mrs. Pelosi’s choice for majority leader, electing Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland over John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania. Then, the signal by Mrs. Pelosi that she intended to bypass Ms. Harman for the intelligence post stirred dissent among moderate Democrats, particularly members of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition, who mounted a campaign for Ms. Harman.

Ms. Harman made the case publicly that the centrist course she had taken on national security issues would be crucial to the Democrats maintaining a majority in Congress. Alcee L. Hastings, a liberal Florida congressman who was one of Ms. Harman’s competitors for the position, had also been marshaling support to his side, and had the backing of the powerful Congressional Black Caucus.

But Mr. Hastings, who was impeached and removed from a federal judgeship in 1989 because of a bribery scandal, was opposed by conservative Democrats and ultimately deemed by Mrs. Pelosi to be too controversial for the position.

Mrs. Pelosi called Ms. Harman on Friday morning to deliver the news, and the two Californians spoke for about 10 minutes, according to people familiar with both sides of the conversation. Mrs. Pelosi thanked Ms. Harman for her “service and intellectual contribution.”

Ms. Harman, though, beat Mrs. Pelosi to the punch in announcing the news. In a break of political protocol, she sent out a statement congratulating Mr. Reyes before Mrs. Pelosi’s office had even made the appointment official. In a statement on Friday, Ms. Harman gave her “full and enthusiastic support” for Mr. Reyes and pledged to “stay actively involved in security matters.”

Representative Lincoln Davis, Democrat of Tennessee, was one of the Blue Dog Democrats who signed a letter to Mrs. Pelosi last month urging her to select Ms. Harman. It was Ms. Harman’s instruction on intelligence matters, he said, that helped several Democrats win election and defuse the charge that Democrats are soft on national security.

“Obviously, some of us would have been happier with Jane Harman. She has a grasp of national intelligence issues,” Mr. Davis said in a telephone interview on Friday from his district in Middle Tennessee.

“I really don’t know what the problem is,” he added. “They are both from California, you know.”

But Mr. Davis also said that Mr. Reyes was an excellent compromise and he predicted the storm would quickly blow over inside the Democratic caucus.

Representative Anna G. Eshoo, a California Democrat who sits on the Intelligence Committee and is close to Mrs. Pelosi, said that Mr. Reyes’s low profile would serve him well in the new job.

“He doesn’t shoot from the lip. He’s not a showboat,” Ms. Eshoo said in a telephone interview Friday from California. “He doesn’t alienate people when he offers his views. He’s firm, yet he’s open-minded.”

Born and raised in Canutillo, Tex., a town on the outskirts of El Paso, Mr. Reyes was drafted into the army and spent 13 months in Vietnam as a helicopter crew chief. He lost hearing in his right ear when an explosion rocked his bunker there. Shortly after returning from Vietnam he began what would become a 26-year career in the Border Patrol.

After retiring from the Border Patrol in 1995, he was elected to Congress the next year and has served on the Intelligence Committee since 2001. He will become the seventh Hispanic representative to lead a full House committee.

But he will inherit a committee that in recent years has become one of Congress’s most dysfunctional and partisan panels.

The past two months have been particularly rancorous, beginning in October when Ms. Harman released the findings of a committee investigation over the objection of the panel’s chairman, Representative Peter Hoekstra, Republican of Michigan.

Soon afterward, Mr. Hoekstra suspended the access of a Democratic staff member to classified material on the suspicion that he was the source of a leaked National Intelligence Estimate on global terrorism.

The staff member, Larry Hanauer, was later cleared of wrongdoing.