WASHINGTON — Incoming House Intelligence Chairman Silvestre Reyes says he'd rather figure out how to stabilize Iraq and bring the troops home than get bogged down investigating what went wrong.
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Despite that pledge, he does plan to revisit one bit of history: What he sees as the government's improper classification of a letter he wrote during the congressional debate on the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
In the letter, he questioned the intelligence used to take the country to war and specifically the "epiphany in the intelligence community" that al-Qaida and the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein were linked, Reyes says. Based on the answers to questions he'd asked since Sept. 11, 2001, he said that assessment was "a complete turnaround" for U.S. analysts.
"We now know that the intelligence was cherry-picked and manipulated," Reyes said in a recent interview. "I thought it was real petty to get (the letter) classified."
Reyes is taking over the House Intelligence Committee at a pivotal time, as the Democrats try to shape the U.S. course on Iraq and Afghanistan, government surveillance programs and other national security questions. The retired Border Patrol agent hasn't seen his party in control of the House since 1994.
Yet even before Reyes officially assumes the chairmanship, questions have been raised about whether he has an adequate handle on national security issues to do the job.
A Congressional Quarterly reporter recently gave Reyes a pop quiz about al-Qaida and Hezbollah. Reyes answered that al-Qaida, a Sunni extremist group, was "predominantly, probably Shiite." Asked about Hezbollah's religious roots, he replied, "Why do you ask me these questions at five o'clock?"
Trying to recover from the misstep, Reyes issued a short statement suggesting he shouldn't be judged on the interview.
"Issues like al-Qaida and the Middle East deserve serious discussion and consideration. As a member of the Intelligence Committee since before 9/11, I'm acutely aware of al-Qaida's desire to harm Americans," said Reyes, who leapfrogged over two more senior members to get the chairmanship. "The Intelligence Committee will keep its eye on the ball and focus on the pressing security and intelligence issues facing us."
The damage was done. Editorial pages from Fresno, Calif., to Hartford, Conn., took aim, as well as late-night talk show host, Jay Leno. "Apparently, the term 'intelligence committee' is just a suggestion," Leno joked.
Key challenge: a fractious committee
Bill Nolte, a former National Security Agency official who served as the spy agency's legislative affairs chief in 2000, minimized Reyes' stumbles in the pop-quiz. "He's been in the field.... So he screwed up on that question, but I bet he can tell you some interesting things about the border that other people on the committee can't."
The key challenge facing Reyes, Nolte said, is getting the fractious intelligence committee to work together to do its primary job of overseeing the nation's spying apparatus. The past year has been marked by bitter partisanship, with leaders of each party accusing the other of dirty politics. "If the committee spends all their time sniping at each other across party lines, it is almost a guarantee you won't have effective oversight," Nolte said.
In his new post, Reyes will oversee all 16 U.S. spy agencies, including the CIA and the NSA.
A spokesman for incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said she has no second thoughts about choosing Reyes to head the panel. She has said Reyes has "impeccable national security credentials," pointing to his 26 years with the Border Patrol and his service on the intelligence, armed services and veterans affairs committees. His background includes a stint in Vietnam as a helicopter crew chief and gunner.
Taking cues from Pelosi, Reyes has pledged to work to implement the remaining, difficult recommendations of the Sept. 11 Commission. He plans to review U.S. intelligence efforts to support the military in Iraq and to figure out how the spy agencies can help the United States transition from a combat to an advisory role there.
Reyes also hopes to renew the committee's focus on diversity in the spy agencies and on Latin America, particularly Venezuela. President Hugo Chavez has influenced elections across Latin America, has called Bush the devil and has aligned himself with Iran.
Reyes is the oldest of 10 children, a father of three and grandfather of three. He is from a farming family outside of El Paso, Texas, where alfalfa and cotton dot the landscape. He played fullback on the Canutillo High School football team.
Reyes has said he didn't see himself getting into politics. But he garnered unusual name recognition through his aggressive programs to secure the porous border in El Paso, and parlayed that into a successful bid for the House in 1996.
Reyes has chaired the House Hispanic Caucus, and advised members against voting for the war in Iraq -- advice the group took.
Now, Reyes may need sharp elbows as he takes over the committee. Pelosi has proposed creating a new intelligence subcommittee that will oversee spy agency spending. No one in Congress likes to cede power, and some of those responsibilities will draw work away from Reyes' committee and the defense panel of the powerful Appropriations Committee.
He'll also have to rein in a spy community that recently was called "headstrong" by one presidential commission. Before him will be a parade of senior intelligence leaders who have polished academic credentials. Reyes has an associate's degree in criminal justice from El Paso Community College.
Jim Currie, a Democratic aide on the Senate Intelligence Committee from 1985 to 1991, said Reyes' commonsense approach may serve him well as he goes up against the country's top spies.
Currie's advice: "Be eternally skeptical of everything you are told. In many instances, these people are trained to lie for a living."
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