Top intelligence panel Democrat open to spending cuts

Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., is reviewing spy agency budgets for places to trim fat.

The new top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee said on Friday that cuts to intelligence and security programs should be on the table in order to help bring down the government's debt.

Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., who was named ranking member of the panel only three days ago, told National Journal he has begun reviewing the budgets for intelligence spending and plans to work with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to determine where cuts can be made.

"We have to make sure we do a total fiscal analysis of where we're going. But we cannot hurt programs that will make us weaker as a country," Ruppersberger said in an interview. "We have to evaluate all of our different programs and see which ones are duplicitous and which ones we just can't do anymore."

Many lawmakers are eyeing non-security discretionary spending for budget cuts. But the government spent about $80 billion in fiscal 2010 on the Military Intelligence Program and National Intelligence Program combined. Reducing spending on intelligence programs, however, has been a taboo area for some lawmakers.

"We have to focus," Ruppersberger said. "And how we focus, based on my experience in managing a major operation, is you just don't come in and say we're going to cut across the board. What you say is that you have to review your programs."

Ruppersberger was chief executive of Baltimore County in Maryland and has been on the intelligence panel for eight years.

One area Ruppersberger is closely examining is whether spending on space assets, such as spy satellites, can be consolidated in order to save money. He said he is looking at whether separate space programs by the military, intelligence agencies, and NASA can be merged.

But he declined to give a target amount for reducing intelligence spending or identify other programs he would be open to cutting.

"If you come in and say we're going to cut 15 percent, that hurts every program," he said. "We want to make the programs that we need and that are the most important to us as strong as they ever were. But there are other programs that we just can't afford anymore. There's other equipment we might not be able to afford any more in order to help us deal with this serious fiscal issue we're facing."

Ruppersberger said he expects to have a good working relationship with House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich. The two already appear to be in agreement in some key areas.

For example, Ruppersberger said he is concerned that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has grown too big. Rogers told National Journal earlier this week he is open to shrinking the size of the DNI.

Ruppersberger said he also wants to review the effectiveness of an inter-agency group the Obama administration created to interrogate high-value terrorism suspects. The group is led by the FBI, but Ruppersberger questions whether it should be ran by the Pentagon. Rogers has similar concerns.

The chairman and ranking member already differ over a few issues. For example, Ruppersberger believes the National Counterterrorism Center should continue to exist, and operate under the DNI. Rogers is examining whether the center should be abolished and whether another agency can better perform its mission.

Ruppersberger also does not believe Congress has enough time to vet and pass an intelligence authorization bill for the current fiscal year-something Rogers wants to do.

Ruppersberger also believes that three expiring provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act should be reauthorized for three years. Rogers has co-sponsored a bill that would reauthorize the provisions until December. Ruppersberger said he wants a three-year authorization so the issue does not become a political football in the upcoming presidential election campaigns.