How California lawmakers dominate oversight of U.S. spy agencies (McClatchy)
Three disparate California lawmakers lead Congress’ oversight of the U.S. spy services, sharing secrets but not the same spin.
One is a former San Francisco mayor and the state’s deal-making senior senator. Another comes from the rural Central Valley, holding a master’s degree in agriculture. The third is a Harvard Law School-trained former federal prosecutor with statewide political ambitions.
When terrifying things happen, from Brussels to San Bernardino, these congressional overseers get called. Daily, even when all seems quiet, they must struggle to corral bureaucracies that keep mum about how they spend an estimated $53 billion a year.
“The CIA, by culture and instinct, is not prone to really open up and provide information,” former CIA Director Leon Panetta, himself a former California congressman, said in an interview, adding, in a reference to congressional testimony, “there were some whose instinct was to go up there and try to stonewall.”
The resulting clashes can be consequential.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, now the ranking Democrat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, battled for years with the CIA over the committee’s still-secret study of harsh interrogation practices.
“The CIA provided extensive amounts of inaccurate information about the operation of the program and its effectiveness to the White House, the Department of Justice, Congress, the CIA inspector general, the media and the American public,” Feinstein said when releasing the report’s executive summary in 2014.
The current chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, is now investigating the alleged manipulation of war assessments by the U.S. Central Command. Last year, citing anonymous sources, the New York Times alleged that Centcom officials had overstated progress against the Islamic State and other U.S. enemies.
Nunes, in an interview, said a special multi-committee task force was needed to investigate the allegations because officials were “trying to hide” from oversight through bureaucratic sleight-of-hand.
“There was manipulation of intelligence,” Nunes said, adding that “we’ve had whistleblowers who have come forward.”
Nor is Congress immune from criticism, with the 9/11 Commission in 2004warning that congressional intelligence oversight was “dysfunctional” at the time. Since then, Congress has made some changes, though not all the ones recommended by the 9/11 Commission.
Each of the current intelligence overseers is a groundbreaker, in his or her own way.
Feinstein was the first woman and first Californian to chair the Senate intelligence panel.
Nunes is the first member from the Central Valley to chair the House intelligence panel. At 42, he’s second-youngest of the 14 chairmen to head the committee since it was established in 1975.
And the ranking Democrat who serves alongside Nunes, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, makes this Congress the first time members from the same state have held the House intelligence committee’s top two seats.
“We all understand the importance of our responsibilities, particularly with all that is going on in the world, and want to get things done,” Schiff, 55, said of his relationship with Nunes, adding that “it helps that we’re both Raiders fans.”
Each maintains ambitions of their own, for which effective committee performance could come in handy.
Nunes says he’d like to chair, some day, the powerful tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. Schiff, who has stockpiled $2 million in campaign cash, has eyed the Senate, declaring last year that he “would relish the chance to serve the entire state.”
Citing his intelligence committee position, Schiff ultimately ruled out a run for the seat being vacated this year by Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer. The next Senate opening occurs in 2018.
The 82-year-old Feinstein, first elected in 1992, has not said whether she will run again for re-election in two years.
“I have two years and nine months left, so there is ample time to make a decision,” she told The Sacramento Bee editorial board on Wednesday.
California is intimately tied to the intelligence world. From discrete contractors like Palantir Technologies, a Palo Alto-based data analytics firm that Fortune magazine valued at $20 billion, to Southern California’s vast aerospace industry, the commercial and intellectual connections abound.
“We depend a great deal on those companies that are based in California,” Panetta acknowledged.
And, each of the overseers has put a distinctive stamp on the work.
Feinstein is “always well prepared” and zeroes in with “very specific questions,” Panetta recalled. Feinstein can also be turf-conscious, as when she showed displeasure after the White House in 2009 didn’t check with her before tapping Panetta as director of central intelligence.
“She feels she should be consulted,” Panetta said, with a knowing laugh.
Feinstein said Saturday that she works "closely with the Republican and Democratic leadership of both Senate and House committees," adding that "most of our oversight work of intelligence agencies is bipartisan by nature."
Warning that encryption has "affected our ability to identify and track individuals who seek to do us harm," Feinstein said she hopes the intelligence panel can complete legislation to ensure corporations comply with court orders.
Schiff brings a lawyer’s analytical mind to bear on intelligence problems, Nunes said. The former prosecutor also regularly opines publicly on national security matters. In March, Schiff sent out five intelligence-related press releases. Nunes sent out one, and held a half-hour meeting with reporters in the Capitol.
Nunes reorganized his panel’s subcommittees and, this year, elevated to staff director his long-time aide, Tulare County native and Air Force veteran Damon Nelson. Nelson’s predecessor as chief of staff, California State University at San Bernardino graduate Jeff Shockey, was hired in January as vice president of federal legislative affairs for aerospace giant and spy satellite competitor Boeing.
Nunes has also brought his blunt speaking style, formerly deployed on issues like California water, to the intelligence work.
At one of the House committee’s rare public hearings on Feb. 25, Nunes accused the Obama administration of “delay, denial and deception” on one intelligence matter. At other times he’s targeted President Barack Obama directly.
“You’ve got the president of the United States dancing down in Argentina when he should be meeting with the leaders of Europe and other allies to try to take the fight to the enemy,” Nunes said March 27 on Fox News Sunday.
At the same time, Nunes and Schiff collaborated to shepherd the Fiscal 2016 Intelligence Authorization Act to a drama-free, 364-58 approval by the House last December.
Underscoring the sense of common cause, no amendments were offered and no one spoke against the measure on the floor. Though slightly more contentious, the intelligence panel’s cyber-security bill likewise passed by a 307-116 margin last April.
“The intelligence committee is characterized by an atmosphere of pragmatic and constructive bipartisanship,” Schiff said. “I would be hard-pressed to find a better partner.”
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