California Republican Rep. Devin Nunes on Tuesday vaulted into top-secret leadership, as the next chairman of the powerful and ofttimes mysterious House Intelligence Committee.
Nunes’s selection, which takes effect in January, makes the 41-year-old Tulare, Calif., native a central player in the nation’s ongoing debates over surveillance, counterterrorism strategy and covert operations. He’ll be a hot commodity on Sunday talk shows and a guest of foreign leaders.
Behind the scenes, Nunes will be taking a lead role in setting the budget and authorizing activities of the sprawling intelligence community, comprised of more than a dozen agencies, from the CIA to the satellite-building National Reconnaissance Office.
“The committee's work is vital because strong congressional oversight of the intelligence community is critical for our national defense posture,” Nunes said in a prepared statement.
This year, the so-called “national intelligence program” budget is some $50.5 billion, up $10 billion from 2006, according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
A staunch conservative known for speaking his mind, sometimes bluntly, Nunes beat out several other GOP contenders for the post. Unlike most other committee leadership positions, the Intelligence Committee chairmanship is selected solely by the House speaker.
“Over the past four years, Devin has been instrumental in ensuring that our intelligence professionals have the resources they need to keep America safe,” House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said. “He has asked tough questions and conducted serious oversight to hold the Obama administration accountable.”
Nunes has been a close ally to Boehner since joining the House in 2003. He has also been a diligent fundraiser for his fellow Republicans, distributing hundreds of thousands of dollars through his leadership political action committee and from his own campaign fund.
Nunes has served on what’s formally called the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence since early 2011. A graduate of California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, Nunes had no prior military or intelligence experience prior to being named to the House panel.
The American Civil Liberties Union gave Nunes a zero vote rating this year, while the conservative Center for Security Policy lauded him with an 89 percent vote rating.
“I’ve always been impressed by him,” Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat who also serves on the intelligence panel, told McClatchy earlier this year. “He works in a very bipartisan way.”
Nunes can be pragmatic, as in his efforts to work with the Obama administration on trade issues during his chairmanship of the House trade subcommittee, and he’s been willing to criticize fellow Republicans, as he did when he sharply questioned the tactic of shutting down the government last year.
The last Californian to chair the House Intelligence Committee was Democrat Anthony Beilenson, who was in charge from 1989 to 1991. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein currently leads the Senate intelligence panel, but she’s losing that position next year when Republicans take over the Senate.
The 21-member House committee is currently divided between 12 Republicans and nine Democrats. It meets, usually in secret, once or twice a week on Capitol Hill, in addition to sessions at intelligence community sites.
On Monday, for instance, the committee had a closed-door session scheduled to discuss “ongoing intelligence activities,” while on Thursday it will conduct an open session on “cyber-security threats.”
Members read daily intelligence summaries skimmed from open sources, are privy to highly classified documents and travel to remote places often described, generically, as something like “Southeast Asia.” Staff members from the congressional office do not always know when and where committee business will cause the lawmaker to go away for a while.
The current chairman, Michigan Republican and former FBI special agent Mike Rogers, is retiring to become a radio talk show host.
“At a time when the United States faces major international challenges including significant terror threats, I am honored and humbled to have been entrusted with this position,” Nunes said.