House Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi has chosen a Border Patrol agent-turned-congressman to lead the House Intelligence Committee, ending weeks of Democratic debate about who will oversee the nation's spy agencies.
Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, takes over the key post next year, as his party tries to intensify oversight of the intelligence community. Critics say Republicans failed to do that, leading to faulty prewar intelligence on Iraq and other stumbles.
"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 of intelligence on Iran or North Korea he does not hesitate to ask them," Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement announcing her choice of Reyes.
The selection of Reyes resolves one of the few committee chairmanships that was still in question after Democrats won control of the House of Representatives last month. It set up an early challenge for Pelosi, who had sole discretion on the selection.
The California Democrat had to navigate a series of candidates and their supporters who were vying for the post. In the end, Pelosi bypassed two more senior intelligence committee members Reps. Jane Harman, D-Calif., and Alcee Hastings, D-Fla. to select Reyes.
Harman is currently the committee's top Democrat, and her term on the panel expires this year. She could have been reappointed by Pelosi, but the two are said to have political differences. In a statement, Harman congratulated Reyes and noted she has offered him her "full and enthusiastic support."
Some critics and ethics watchdogs had questioned whether Hastings was the right person for the post, which has access to some of the nation's top secrets. He is Congress' only impeached federal judge.
In a sign of the bitterness that has surrounded the issue, a Hastings statement this week announcing he would not get the job closed with: "Sorry, haters, God is not finished with me yet."
Known as "Silver" to friends, Reyes is a Purple Heart winner who was drafted into the Army and served during 1966-68 as a helicopter crew chief and gunner. His service included 13 months in Vietnam.
He rose through the ranks during 26 years of service in the Border Patrol, leaving as a senior law enforcement official in Texas in 1995. He won his seat in Congress the next year.
Under Democratic control, his committee is expected to increase public oversight of some of the most difficult issues facing the United States, including terrorism, Iraq and government surveillance. Given the committee's inherently secret nature, much of the work will have to be done behind closed doors.
In an interview this month, Reyes said he will insist on more information about the Bush administration's most classified programs and how they are working. The Republicans, he said, have made a habit of rubber-stamping those programs.
He also wants to look at the role of intelligence three years after the war in Iraq and the state of traditional spycraft, now referred to as "human intelligence."
"We haven't required or haven't had the administration give us the details, evaluation or plan of how these classic programs are functioning," he said.
Reyes is considered less partisan than Hastings, and signaled that the day after the election when he praised the selection of former CIA Director Robert Gates to replace Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
Reyes noted that Gates served in Republican and Democratic administrations, giving him a bipartisan background. "I do look forward to hearing from him and what his ideas are," he said, particularly on the administration's new direction in Iraq.
Reyes believes that the U.S. must increase its military strength to face the current threats in Iraq, that the Bush administration must forge better alliances, and that Iraqi militias must be disbanded. "We cannot and we should not tolerate these private armies with these warlords," he said.
Nowhere in Congress are relations between Republicans and Democrats as publicly nasty as the House Intelligence Committee.
In October, Harman unilaterally released the committee's investigation into a jailed Republican congressman's efforts to abuse his position on the panel to enrich himself and his associates.
That same week, the current chairman Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich. suspended a Democratic aide's access to classified information, based on circumstantial evidence that he may have leaked a high-level intelligence estimate on terrorism.
Angry conference calls and letters followed. The aide's security clearance was later reinstated.
In the interview, Reyes said that relations among committee members "can't get worse. It has gotten as bad as it could."