WASHINGTON—It's still early in the 110th Congress, but the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee—recently the site of some of the most partisan divisiveness of a remarkably partisan era—seem intent on restoring the panel's reputation as a place of nonpartisan collegiality.
Democratic Chairman Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Vice Chairman Christopher "Kit" Bond of Missouri, who succeeded Kansan Pat Roberts as the committee's top Republican, pledged early on to work together with an emphasis on forward-looking oversight.
"This was not pretty the previous five years. ... We've made a different approach this time," Rockefeller said.
So far, so good, Bond agreed, adding: "I've discovered Jay Rockefeller is a sucker for Russell Stover's low-carb candies. ... You try everything."
Bond hosted a happy hour for committee staff shortly after becoming the vice chairman, a gathering Rockefeller attended. Bond provided the Budweiser; he suggested Rockefeller serve "steak and fine wine" at the next one.
The two exchanged personal letters at the outset, outlining their own goals for the committee. "Our priorities ... were nearly identical. I knew that was a good sign," Rockefeller said.
Such niceties may seem pedestrian and peripheral to the important work of overseeing and overhauling the American intelligence community during wartime. But in the clubby Senate, it's hard to overstate the importance of personal relationships in achieving comity—and getting things done.
Bond, 67, and Rockefeller, 69, share a background as sons of prep school and Ivy League privilege—Bond went to Deerfield and Princeton, Rockefeller to Exeter and Harvard—which typically provides a unique understanding and affinity among men of their vintage. Both have spent virtually their entire adult lives in elected office, including serving as governors together in the early 1980s.
"I think they feel they can pick up the phone and talk to each other anytime," said Julie Dammann, Bond's longtime chief of staff, who's now a Washington lobbyist. "They're trying to rebuild the trust that had been lost over the last couple of years."
Also helping, those familiar with the committee said, is that vocal Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, a Democrat, has become the chairman of the Armed Services Committee and is no longer an active member of the Intelligence Committee. And the committee staff has been reorganized into working groups that foster nonpartisan efforts. "There are no Republicans. There are no Democrats. There are only people who work for the committee. We take that seriously," Rockefeller said.
Rockefeller has incorporated some of Bond's interests into the committee agenda, such as the quality of human intelligence and the ideology of radical Islam.
The committee is off to a fast start. There's an average of three hearings a week. One recent week alone, there were closed hearings on renditions, China and the National Security Agency's domestic-surveillance program. That's on top of informal briefings, administrative work and preparation time for the hearings themselves.
Bond estimated that he's spending about 80 percent of his time on Intelligence Committee work.
Rockefeller and Bond already have worked together to pressure the Bush administration and the intelligence community to turn over documents on a variety of issues, from a National Intelligence Estimate on Iran to information on specific intelligence activities.
"We were furious about the lack of information and responsiveness ... on wiretaps, on detainees, all of that stuff," Rockefeller said. "We have to have that information. Kit feels very strong about that. ... We need that, and by golly we're going to get it."
Bond said he and Rockefeller agreed on the need for "good in-depth oversight, challenging the assumptions."
"We had a hearing today looking into the legality of certain operations of the intelligence community," Bond said recently, referring to a closed hearing on renditions. "We asked very hard questions. ... There were some things that didn't look right to me, and didn't look right to them," meaning committee Democrats.
That's not to say that Rockefeller and Bond agree on every issue. Bond acknowledged with a chuckle: "I'm not one to ignore a political fight when it comes along."
Earlier this month, Rockefeller and Bond issued dueling news releases after the Pentagon inspector general released a report that was critical of the pre-war intelligence-related activities of the office of former Defense Undersecretary Douglas Feith.
And the committee has yet to issue three remaining reviews of pre-Iraq war intelligence: looking into the activities of Feith's office, on prewar estimates of postwar Iraq and, perhaps most controversial, on how prewar statements by government officials compared with the available intelligence at the time.
Those investigations provided much partisan fodder during the past four years, and some fireworks probably will erupt when the reports finally are completed, Bond acknowledged. But both senators said that any difference of opinion wouldn't affect their relationship.
"We know it won't be easy or pleasant, but we both feel it's important to finish and to close that chapter and move on," Rockefeller said.
(McClatchy correspondent Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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