Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Friday tapped Texas Congressman and former Border Patrol agent Silvestre Reyes to be the next chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, ending what had become a distracting fight among Democrats over who should get the influential post.
Reyes will occupy a key position for Democrats seeking to use their newfound majority status to challenge the Bush administration on a range of national security issues including conduct of the Iraq war, and the capture and interrogation of terrorism suspects abroad.
"One of the frustrations that I have felt has been a propensity for Congress to be a rubber stamp to just about anything the [Bush] administration has proposed," Reyes said in a telephone interview Friday. "I intend to be much more aggressive."
His appointment comes amid signs of a shake-up on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Senate aides said GOP leaders planned to remove Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) as the top Republican on the panel. Possible replacements include Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), the outgoing chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. A spokeswoman for Roberts declined to comment.
In selecting Reyes -- widely viewed as a compromise candidate -- Pelosi sought to quiet a controversy over her handling of personnel issues in assembling her leadership team. Pelosi, of San Francisco, had drawn criticism from some of her Democratic colleagues for deciding to bypass two more-senior members of the panel -- Reps. Jane Harman (D-Venice) and Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.) -- who had lobbied for the job.
Harman, currently the senior Democrat on the intelligence committee, was pushed aside in part because of a political feud with Pelosi. Hastings was rejected largely over ethics concerns. In the 1980s, Hastings was forced to step down as a federal judge in Florida after being impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate of conspiring to accept a bribe from two defendants convicted in his court of racketeering.
Harman was viewed by some Democrats as being too reluctant to criticize the Bush administration over Iraq. Reyes, unlike Harman, voted against the war in a key 2002 vote.
In a sign that Democrats are eager to shift the focus away from the acrimonious competition for the job, Harman praised the selection of Reyes, saying he brings "great experience" to the position because of his years on the intelligence and armed services committees as well as in border enforcement.
Reyes, 62, has served on the intelligence committee since 2001, earning a reputation for diligence in focusing on border security and domestic threats. But current and former congressional aides said Reyes had yet to acquire a deep understanding of the issues and inner workings of the sprawling U.S. intelligence community.
"He's a thoughtful member, well respected by other members and staff," said a former senior Republican aide on the committee who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He's a solid guy. But he's still in the process of learning the business."
Reyes will be expected by Democrats to carry out an aggressive oversight agenda, and to bring fresh scrutiny to an array of classified intelligence operations and programs launched by the Bush administration after the Sept. 11 attacks. He also faces the challenge of leading a panel that has become increasingly partisan.
In recent years, the House Intelligence Committee has been less aggressive than its Senate counterpart in investigating intelligence failures including erroneous prewar claims about Iraq's alleged stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons.
At the same time, a series of highly classified intelligence operations authorized by President Bush have been exposed in the media -- including the secret transfers of terrorism suspects overseas and the wiretapping of international phone calls made by U.S. citizens.
Reyes said he intended to examine these intelligence programs and others.
"I think in general terms we have seen the erosion of what our traditional American values are in terms of techniques that are used to interrogate, secret prisons, wiretapping of American citizens," he said.
In a statement, Pelosi said Reyes "has impeccable national security credentials" and would serve as a "zealous protector of the civil liberties that define us as a nation."
Reyes was elected to Congress in 1996 after a 26-year career in the U.S. Border Patrol, where he was sector chief in El Paso. He is also a Vietnam War veteran who earned a Purple Heart for injuries that left him without hearing in his right ear.