Obama gives backing to Kansas Republican's ridiculed plan

McClatchy NewspapersJune 23, 2009 

WASHINGTON — He probably won't show it, but Sen. Pat Roberts might be feeling a bit smug lately. He's resisted the urge to weigh in with his trademark, dry-as-a-prairie-in-a-drought sense of humor, though the situation is certainly ripe for it. Even something as simple as, "So there!"

Because it wasn't too long ago that the Kansas Republican took a pretty sharp elbow from a nonprofit government-watchdog group over a scholarship program he set up to train future intelligence officers. It turns out, though, that he might have been something of a visionary.

Here's what happened:

Citizens Against Government Waste gave Roberts the Narcissist Award in its latest edition of the "Pig Book," a compendium of allegedly wasteful government spending. The $2 million earmark that he'd requested for the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program was included.

Roberts set up the pilot program four years ago when he was the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Its purpose was to train workers in the intelligence community in specialized areas where it was deficient, such as language skills, regional studies and new technology.

"When we created the program, intelligence agencies were losing highly qualified recruits to the private sector," Roberts said. "We needed a tool to attract some of the best and brightest to government service."

The Pig Book authors labeled his earmark one of the "oinkers" and recognized his "dogged perseverance in the mad pursuit of pork."

The intelligence community, meanwhile, loved the program.

"It was a tremendous idea," said Ron Sanders, an associate director of national intelligence for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Further, the Obama administration — whose intelligence policies Roberts often finds troubling, including plans to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center — likes his scholarship so much that it wants to expand it, make the program permanent and provide regular funding. No more earmarks.

A representative of Citizens Against Government Waste couldn't be reached for comment.

The administration envisions combining the scholarship program with another pilot effort that awards competitive grants to colleges and universities so they can offer new courses in fields where the intelligence community has needs.

Students enrolled in those schools would be eligible for the Roberts scholarships and would commit to working in the intelligence community. Each applicant would have to pass a background check.

Sanders said the model was the military's Reserve Officers' Training Corps. ROTC students receive financial help to attend school and then owe several years to their branches of the service after graduation.

"We're drawing from a shrinking labor pool, and we're looking for some of the most esoteric specialties," Sanders said. "We've concluded that we have to build our supply. We can't just rely on the labor market to produce graduates ready to walk in the door. We have to begin recruiting upstream."

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