WASHINGTON — Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California will find both spotlight and shadows if she becomes the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Feinstein stands to become the first woman, and the first Californian, to chair the 15-member panel since it was established in 1976. She's the front-runner for the job, due to a cascade of other Senate leadership changes that will become final next week.
The Intelligence Committee chairmanship brings real power, as the committee sets the classified intelligence budget, which now exceeds $47.5 billion a year.
It conveys national stature and inside-the-Beltway panache, which could weigh on Feinstein as she considers a potential 2010 California gubernatorial race.
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But however alluring, the job also comes with political risks. With national security at stake, mistakes have serious consequences. Intra-committee partisanship has been toxic. For the committee and the agencies it oversees, a cult of secrecy can complicate solving problems.
"There is a need-to-know culture, and it's like extraneous organisms are rejected," Rep. Jane Harman, a California Democrat who served eight years on the House of Representatives intelligence panel, said of the intelligence agencies.
Feinstein herself added in 2006 that "members of the committee are not provided with sufficient information on intelligence programs and activities to legislate or oversee the intelligence community."
This isn't unique to the Bush administration. A detailed history published this year by the CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence, titled "The Agency and the Hill," noted that the CIA initially voiced "widespread unease" about congressional oversight.
The committee, in turn, keeps secrets of its own.
The Senate intelligence panel has held 37 hearings and briefings this year, its Web site shows. Of these, only five have been public.
The committee operates under its own set of rules. Every congressional panel, for instance, must report foreign travel expenditures. From April 2007 through June 2008, public records show, the Senate Intelligence Committee spent more than $1 million on foreign travel. Unlike other committees, though, the intelligence panel doesn't divulge to which countries staffers and lawmakers traveled.
The committee has for years confined some of its business to a buttoned-up room, called a Secure Compartmented Information Facility, beneath the Capitol's dome. Strict design rules govern these facilities, illustrating the security zeal of the intelligence world. External door hinges are welded so they can't be removed. Walls, ceilings and floors are reinforced with steel plates, at least one-eighth-inch thick. Wristwatches are permitted inside, but personal computers aren't.
The committee's eavesdrop-proof facility is moving to a new underground Capitol Visitors Center, but it still will be impervious to some standard Capitol Hill practices.
"Many of the legislative tools available to other committees are not available to the intelligence panel," noted Steven Aftergood, an intelligence policy specialist with the Federation of American Scientists. "They cannot hold highly publicized investigative hearings. They cannot interrogate witnesses live on C-SPAN . . . and this means they can have a hard time mobilizing public opinion."
The committee has three basic responsibilities. It writes the annual intelligence authorization bill, which sets spending levels. It declares policy, covering everything from wiretapping to interrogation techniques. And it oversees the 16-agency intelligence community, spanning CIA spooks to National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency mapmakers.
"The point of a functioning intelligence committee is to speak truth to power," Harman said, adding that "Congress had virtually no insight into this world" during the Bush administration.
"Strong oversight of the intelligence community is critical to ensuring our national security, and to restoring America's reputation in the world," Feinstein said earlier this month.
The intelligence authorization bill appeared to be 108 pages this year, but that was misleading. The dollar amounts were confined to a "classified annex" that was available only to lawmakers and select staff.
The committee's four dozen or so staff members can be pretty exotic. They include a former Baghdad-based State Department attorney, a longtime counter-narcotics specialist and, as the Republicans' top staffer, a former Navy SEAL. Feinstein's Intelligence Committee staffer is a trained chemist with degrees from Cornell and Harvard who formerly advised Harman.
It isn't a pork barrel panel, but it matters to some powerful companies.
Some 70 percent of U.S. intelligence spending goes to private contractors, a director of national intelligence document revealed last year. Companies including Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Science Applications International Corp. have a piece of the intelligence pie, as do research centers including Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
This means that the intelligence world is both parochial and far-flung. Harman, for instance, noted that her Southern California congressional district contains some of the nation's leading aerospace and intelligence contractors, including the makers of spy satellites.
"The committee is lobbied by contractors, who have a strong interest in a particular outcome," Aftergood said.
The intelligence panel's work definitely can touch a corporate bottom line.
Last year, for instance, Rep. Michael Honda, D-Calif., secured in the House intelligence bill $2.5 million for a "cryptographic modernization system" that's being developed by a San Jose-based company. Honda is a member of the House intelligence panel. Then-Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi secured a $4.5 million intelligence earmark last year for the Mississippi-based National Meteorology and Oceanographic Command.
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