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Pelosi wants new House committee to oversee spy spending

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WASHINGTON (AP) _ Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi on Thursday recommended creating a House panel to closely examine U.S. spy agencies' actions and spending, a step toward adopting all the proposals of the anti-terror Sept. 11 commission.

Pelosi, D-Calif., said the panel would ``protect the American people with the best possible intelligence, recognizing the role that Congress plays in all of this.''

It also would shake up long-standing power structures in Congress.

The Select Intelligence Oversight Panel would be part of the powerful Appropriations Committee and would draw its membership from that spending committee and the Select Committee on Intelligence.

Through a series of hearings, it would examine the president's intelligence budget, prepare the classified details to the annual defense spending bill and conduct oversight of the use of appropriated funds by intelligence agencies.

Pelosi's proposal does not follow the exact recommendation of the Sept. 11 commission. But it moves closer to the overhaul recommended two years ago when the commission found weaknesses in how Congress monitors the 16 intelligence agencies.

But a Democratic member of the Sept. 11 commission _ former Rep. Timothy Roemer, D-Ind. _ said the change would achieve the commission's two major goals: forcing spy agencies to disclose more to Congress, which they often have ignored, and linking the expanded oversight to the power of the purse.

``This is a major step forward in terms of correcting some of the dysfunction on Capitol Hill,'' Roemer said.

Messages left Thursday for the commission's five Republican members were not immediately returned.

Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, who will lead House Republicans next year, was lukewarm about Pelosi's proposal.

``I appreciate the incoming speaker's efforts to reach out to Republicans in hopes of continuing to improve congressional oversight of America's intelligence systems,'' Boehner said in a statement.

The full House will have to approve Pelosi's proposal. It was one of six she outlined Thursday as her priorities for the first 100 legislative hours of the new Congress that convenes in January.

The others are ethics and lobbying overhaul; raising the federal minimum wage; cutting interest rates on student loans; making health care more affordable; and cutting subsidies to the oil industry.

It also is not clear if the Senate would create a similar intelligence committee, which would be needed to avoid awkwardness as the two chambers work together on intelligence spending bills.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and other senators are reviewing Pelosi's proposal in the context of the Sept. 11 commission's recommendations, said his spokesman, Jim Manley.

In late 2004, the Republican-controlled Congress put in place many post-Sept. 11 changes with a law that created a national intelligence director. Some of the most vexing recommendations were put aside.

Pelosi has pledged to improve on Republican efforts.

``We'll go them one better on port security, where we have even tougher proposals to screen 100 percent of the containers long before they reach U.S. shores,'' Pelosi said.

Less than 10 percent of cargo containers arriving at seaports are physically inspected. The Bush administration has said other security measures will permit officials to screen 100 percent of incoming containers _ by checking each container's origin, destination and purported contents to see whether anything raises suspicions.

``By the end of next year, we expect to have virtually all containers coming into the U.S. screened through radiation portal monitors,'' Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Thursday.

The potency of Pelosi's proposed overhaul will not be known until the Democrats go public with their legislation next year. For now, Pelosi is looking internally at how Congress will do its work.

The classified nature of intelligence spending creates risks that improper spending will go undetected. That became apparent this year when former Rep. Randy ``Duke'' Cunningham, R-Calif., was convicted of taking bribes in return for using classified legislation to steer government contracts to favored companies.

Cunningham was a member of both the intelligence and appropriations committees.

In 2004, the Sept. 11 commission found widespread dissatisfaction with the way Congress oversees spy agencies, saying the current committee structure lacked the muscle to reign in spending.

The commission suggested two alternatives: form a joint House and Senate intelligence committee or create committees in each chamber that conduct the oversight and allocate money for the spy agencies.

Tweaking the second option, Pelosi would create an intelligence oversight subcommittee within the Appropriations Committee, rather than establishing a new stand-alone panel.

The success of her plan depends on her colleagues, some of whom would have to cede more control to Pelosi's new panel.

``Few things are more difficult to change in Washington than congressional committee jurisdictions and prerogatives,'' the Sept. 11 commission wrote. ``To a member, these assignments are almost as important as the map of his or her congressional district.'
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