December 2, 2006

Harman: Power shift to be smooth
"I will continue to make my views known," South Bay lawmaker says after Pelosi ejects her from a key House Intelligence post.

Copley News Service

WASHINGTON -- South Bay Rep. Jane Harman, formally nudged from a key leadership post Friday, nevertheless promised to ensure a smooth transition for her successor as top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

"In this journey of life, you have to take a few knocks," Harman said a few hours after incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi handed the committee chairman's gavel to Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas.


Pelosi's decision capped an unusually public spat between the two high-profile California Democrats and was one of the most bitter blows of Harman's political career. Under normal circumstances, she would have become chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee when Democrats take control of the House in January.

Harman, 61, has been the top-ranking Democrat on the committee since 2003 and one of the party's leading voices on national security issues. Pelosi, D-San Francisco, had appointed her to the post, but their relationship deteriorated in recent years over political and personality clashes, observers on Capitol Hill have said.

As a moderate with a reputation for being hawkish on defense issues, Harman has been criticized by some Democrats for not being a harsher critic of the Bush administration on the Iraq war and controversial domestic surveillance programs set up after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Harman can be abrasive at times, some insiders said, and Pelosi also resented the amount of media attention Harman was getting as an expert on national security.

But Harman's defenders inside and outside Congress said she was one of the most competent defense and intelligence authorities on Capitol Hill and that Pelosi appeared blind to the broader ramifications of replacing her.

Reyes, a five-term Democrat from El Paso, is also considered a moderate. But, unlike Harman, he voted against authorizing the Iraq war.

"I felt very strongly at the time that the intelligence was being manipulated and cherry-picked to make the case to go into Iraq," Reyes told reporters Friday. "There will be serious oversight (going forward). We want to hold people accountable."

Harman promised to "do everything I can to make the transition a smooth one" and said she would get to work on an "exit memo" for Reyes. One thing she plans to highlight is the need for changes in the way Congress handles its oversight of intelligence issues -- something it has been slow to do despite recommendations from a blue-ribbon commission that studied the 9-11 terrorist attacks and their aftermath.

In particular, Harman said in a speech to the American Bar Association, the intelligence budget, which sprawls across numerous agencies, needs to be integrated; the entire committee, not just its leaders, should be briefed on top-secret programs; and, touching on her own situation, terms on the committee should not be limited.

"I do feel that ... everyone's terms should be permanent," she said. "My term under the rules was a permanent one, but (Pelosi) had the right to make the change, and so she did."

Harman said Pelosi phoned her around 9:30 a.m. to inform her of her decision. "I'm very pleased that my successor is Silver Reyes, a man I've worked with closely," Harman said, using a nickname for Reyes.

In a written statement, Pelosi said Harman "served with distinction in her four years as ranking member of the Intelligence Committee. She has worked tirelessly under difficult circumstances to make sure that our intelligence agencies had the resources, direction and leadership needed to do their jobs well."

Pelosi first made clear her intention to replace Harman a year ago. She faced pressure from the congressional black and Latino caucuses to name one of their members to head the committee, especially since a black leader was passed over so Harman could become ranking Democrat to fulfill a promise party leaders made to her in 2000.

Earlier this week, Pelosi dropped her first choice for chairman, Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., after a wave of negative publicity about Hastings' impeachment as a federal judge in 1989 after bribery and perjury charges.

"If I'm looked at as a compromise candidate, I'm fine with that," Reyes said. "I think I have very strong credentials that could stand up to anybody's."

Reyes served in the Army in Vietnam and spent three decades in the Border Patrol before he was elected to the House in 1996. He was noted for cutting by half the flow of illegal immigrants through El Paso after stationing hundreds of agents at the border there.

Some intelligence experts said Reyes has kept a low profile on the Intelligence Committee and is an unknown quantity in his new role as chairman.

"I think he obviously brings some experience to the job. But I must say I don't know much about him," Loch Johnson, a former committee staff member, said .

Harman will "be very hard to replace, and I think the committee will float for a while," said Johnson, who is now a professor at the University of Georgia. "I think she was uniquely well-prepared to be the next chair. She's very bright, she's committed to oversight and understands the importance of Congress' role in intelligence."

Harman said she still intends to have a voice on national security through senior positions on the House Homeland Security and Energy and Commerce committees.

"I will continue to make my views known, I hope in a constructive way, and to represent ... the position that the Democratic caucus has to take if we want to stay in the majority," she said.

Capping her speech to the Bar Association with a wistful air, she said: "There has been a lot of attention paid to this over the last couple months, and I have been incredibly humbled by the interest of editorial boards and bloggers and op-ed writers, even my own family.

"My 22-year-old, who doesn't read newspapers, is clued in. She said to me yesterday, 'Mom, you're a tough cookie.' OK, I'll take that. And if I can teach her that in this journey of life you have to take a few knocks, then that's a good thing."