During his first two months in Congress in 1997, Rep. Silvestre Reyes jumped right in, helping to head off a Republican attempt to block certification of Mexico as an ally in the war on drugs. Now, the veteran U.S. Border Patrol agent is in the middle of a different kind of battle as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Reyes is presiding over hearings into the Central Intelligence Agency's controversial destruction of videotapes showing harsh interrogation measures being used against two terrorist suspects. The Texas Democrat spoke with U.S. News about intelligence reform, fears of an al Qaeda resurgence, and the role of congressional oversight. Excerpts:
Why should Americans care about the CIA videotapes inquiry?
The reason we're doing this investigation is that although Congress was notified about the existence of the videotapes, we were never notified that they had been destroyed, even though one of the committee members had raised concerns about the agency destroying those videos. Our committee and Congress have a responsibility for oversight, and we, like in other instances, were not given information to do our job.
Is the inquiry more about the tapes or the interrogation techniques?
We're not ruling anything in or anything out. So we want to get into all the relevant documentation, cables, perhaps other videos that the agency might have. Wherever the facts take us, that's where we're going to go with it.
What is your committee's broader agenda?
One of the big concerns on Capitol Hill is the resurgence of al Qaeda and the focus that we have placed on Iraq. We now are seeing some disturbing developments that perhaps with the majority of focus being on Iraq, we are going to encounter the resurgence of al Qaeda in the Afghanistan area. We still want to focus on making sure that the war fighters get the intelligence in order to be safe and carry out their operations. That's an area that the committee will focus on, as well as continue to look at evolving threats—other regions of the world that because of our focus on the Middle East have not gotten our attention.
Has the intelligence community been diverted from al Qaeda because of Iraq?
Absolutely. There have been pretty much wholesale moves from other regions of the world to support the Iraq effort. That had been a big concern even before I became chairman. The situation has not lent itself to being able to return the resources that were borrowed from these parts of the world that are potentially every bit as much a concern as the Middle East.
Any regions in particular?
Latin America is a big one. When we've got people like [Venezuela's President Hugo] Chavez and others who are being anti-American, we need to make sure we have resources in there that will ensure that we don't get surprised.
Historically, your committee has been nonpartisan, but that has deteriorated in recent years. Any chance that can be regained?
Every one of us on both sides of the aisle recognizes that there are serious challenges that we face as a nation that merit us working together. Having said that, I would take note that it's a presidential election year. The prospects are rather dim that the partisanship we have been experiencing the last few years would improve very much.
How is Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, doing on implementing intelligence reform?
The jury is still out. I think we have some key people in leadership positions who have a history of working together. That gives me reason to hope that we will in the next 11 months or so make some serious progress in the many issues that affect the intelligence community. Having said that, there are a number of issues that we need to work on—overhead strategy for space assets, the threat from China and other factors. Diversity is still a huge problem. Members on my committee are very much concerned that the DNI's office is becoming another bureaucracy. While we knew this was not going to be an easy process, it hasn't gone as quickly or as smoothly as we had hoped. But in fairness to Mike McConnell, he just took over.
And what about reforming congressional oversight of intelligence?
That continues to be a top priority. The fact that we're engaged right now on the issue with the CIA tapes is indicative that all is not well there. The other side is that Congress changed leadership a year ago. We've conducted more hearings in the first part of the session than in all the sessions of the previous Congress. We have put the [Bush] administration on notice that we are serious about oversight. We are serious about holding people and agencies accountable, which hadn't always been there. If we learned one thing in this situation with Iraq, it's that the administration has a very poor record of self-policing, and we are serious about making sure there is accountability there.