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.
Pelosi called her early Friday morning to give her the news that Reyes will take over the key post next year.
Hinting that she and Pelosi have had long-standing political differences, Harman she was "humbled" by the attention the choice of chairman of the Intelligence Committee has gained in blogs and editorials and even with her 22-year-old daughter, who told her, "Mom you are a tough cookie."
Harman also said that she has spoken to Reyes to offer her full support and said he brings, "great experience" to the position. Harman said that she would be "disappointed" to be leaving the committee - her leadership term expires this year.
Some critics and ethics watchdogs had questioned whether Hastings - who was impeached as a federal judge - was the right person for a post that has access to some of the nation's top secrets.
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 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 last 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," said Reyes, who will be the first Hispanic chairman of the committee.
The National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights group that has been seeking more representation in leadership positions, was pleased Reyes got the job. "This is an important breakthrough for the Latino community," said the group's president, Janet Murguia.
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 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. Nowhere in Congress are relations between Republicans and Democrats as publicly nasty as the House Intelligence Committee, which saw partisan spats in October over the public release of information about a corrupt GOP congressman and the leak of a high-level intelligence estimate on terrorism.
In the interview, Reyes said that relations among committee members "can't get worse. It has gotten as bad as it could."
Hoekstra said the committee's Republicans will work with Democrats. "The threats and challenges facing our great nation know no political bounds," he said in a statement congratulating Reyes.