The 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks underscored the key oversight role and growing stature of Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, the first San Joaquin Valley lawmaker to chair the House intelligence panel.
Spies brief him. Multi-billion dollar black budgets await him. Television producers invite him to assess the current terrorism threat situation as he did Sunday on the CBS show, “Face the Nation.”
“I think we’re even worse today,” Nunes said, comparing the situation to last year. “I think the threat level is even higher.”
Chairman of what’s formally called the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence since January 2015, Nunes appeared Sunday on the same show as CIA Director John Brennan. Both men now share certain secrets, though they took very different paths to their current positions.
Brennan is a 60-year-old career intelligence officer, who ingratiated himself to President Barack Obama while serving as his White House counter-terrorism adviser. Nunes is a 42-year-old lawmaker with an agricultural background, who frequently criticizes Obama on everything from California water policy to national security.
“I’m concerned that we’re not paying close enough attention to the growth of radical Jihadism,” Nunes said Sunday, adding that “we just don’t know where these guys are hiding.”
The threat level is even higher, because the radical Islamic problem, whether it’s ISIS or al Qaida, continues to add followers. They’ve spread globally.
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia.
Brennan put a different spin on the post-9/11 picture.
“We’ve learned a lot (and) we’ve done a lot,” Brennan told moderator John Dickerson. “I believe today it’s much more difficult for these groups to carry out the type of attack they did 15 years ago.”
Brennan cited, in particular, actions undertaken “to make sure different parts of government are able to work better together and share information.” The in-depth study commonly known as the 9-11 Commission Report cited “bureaucratic rivalries” and lack of communication as among the problems that left the United States vulnerable to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in which hijackers flew airplanes into the Pentagon and two World Trade Center buildings.
At the time of the attacks, Nunes was serving as a trustee of the College of the Sequoias and eyeing his first House race. Brennan was serving as deputy executive director of the CIA. Neither was being invited on Sunday talk shows.
The D.C.-based Sunday talk shows, including “Face the Nation,” “Meet the Press” and “Fox News Sunday,” enable lawmakers and top officials to frame debates and boost their own visibility. In turn, high-stature guests such as Nunes and Brennan are considered a big “get” for the competing shows,
In addition to his four-and-a-half minute long “Face the Nation” appearance Sunday morning, Nunes appeared later on Bret Baier’s Fox News Channel show. He turned down one other Sunday talk show, and fielded several interview requests from reporters working on 9/11 anniversary stories.
The ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, Rep. Adam Schiff of Burbank, appears more often, offering his public assessment on various national security issues. Last year, Schiff cited his intelligence oversight responsibilities in ruling out a bid for the U.S. Senate now held by California’s retiring Democrat, Sen. Barbara Boxer.
Adding to California’s clout on intelligence matters, Schiff’s counterpart as senior Democrat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is the state’s Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who formerly served as committee chair when Democrats controlled the Senate.
“We all understand the importance of our responsibilities, particularly with all that is going on in the world, and want to get things done,” Schiff said in an interview earlier this year.
Much of the work that includes writing an annual authorization bill for the $53 billion-a-year National Intellligence Progam takes place far from the television cameras, in closely protected committee rooms and on trips to far-away places. Last December, for instance, travel records show Nunes went overseas on intelligence committee business, though the destinations are identified only as Asia and Europe.
When the cameras appear, Nunes faces potentially loaded questions as he did Sunday, about Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s recent assertion that Russian President Vladimar Putin is a stronger leader than Obama.
“The refreshing thing about Donald Trump is that he’s a first-time candidate,” Nunes told Dickerson, “and first-time candidates, when they do interviews with folks like yourself, they can easily get tripped up.”
Nunes added that “we want to be friends with the Russians, the problem is that Putin just doesn’t seem to be a guy that we can trust.”