Congress, Reform Thyself, Too

The rational assessment that Congress and the Bush administration should proceed apace with most of the 9/11 commission's recommendations should not fail to include overhauling congressional oversight of US intelligence and anti-terrorist efforts.

While Congress has been quick to move on the commission's findings relating to the executive branch, it still hasn't turned a much-needed eye on the way it oversees how the administration collects, analyzes, and disseminates intelligence - even though the commission called such oversight "dysfunctional."

Since the recommendations were made last month, no less than nine congressional committees have come forward with legislation related to reforming the intelligence community. Such duplication perpetuates a waste of time and effort. It can also mean the same public officials must deliver roughly the same testimony to each committee.

Indeed, Homeland Secretary Tom Ridge says he and his staff have testified on Capitol Hill no less than 140 times in the past year. That, of course, works against their attending to the serious antiterror efforts at hand.

The commission rightly wants Congress to reduce the myriad intelligence oversight committees and panels to just one in both the House and the Senate, or a joint House-Senate committee. And it proposed that each chamber have just one standing committee for homeland security.

That's a big change from the no less than 88 congressional committees and subcommittees involved in oversight of the Department of Homeland Security alone, never mind that Congress is supposed to be keeping an eye on some 15 disparate intelligence agencies.

Experts maintain that having all those committees is a lot about protecting congressional turf, prestige, and power - ironically, the same accusation members of Congress routinely make about the intelligence community.

The commission's got it right that Congress, too, needs reform. But some of the panel's suggestions may not serve the country well. The recommendation that lawmakers serve indefinitely on the new committees puts a premium on experience, but this runs the risk of entrenchment. And the extreme paring down to one joint committee, or two separate committees, leaves a person wondering whether such a tight circle might not generate too cozy a relationship between the committee members and those they're watching.

Streamlining intelligence oversight must go hand in hand with reforming intelligence itself. As the commission notes, that is one of its most difficult, but essential, ideas.

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