WASHINGTON -- A Border Patrol agent-turned-congressman will take over as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee next month, pledging to keep a closer eye on the nation's spy agencies and the Bush administration.
Representative Silvestre Reyes, Democrat of Texas, chosen yesterday by the incoming speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, said in El Paso: "For the first time in about six years, there's going to be some checks and balances. We will see true oversight, real consequences."
Pelosi's announcement ended weeks of speculation within the party about who would replace Representative Peter Hoekstra and get the key position, a question that had created political turmoil for her.
The California Democrat chose Reyes over two more senior Democrats on the committee -- Jane Harman of California and Alcee L. Hastings of Florida.
Harman's supporters included nearly two dozen moderate Democrats known as Blue Dogs.
Hastings had the support of the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus. Reyes will be the first Hispanic to chair the panel.
The Texan has said he will demand more information on the Bush administration's most classified programs, including the detention of enemy combatants and the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance of domestic communications.
He also plans to focus on the war in Iraq, threats from terrorists, the spread of weapons, diversity at US intelligence agencies, and civil liberties.
Reyes was elected to Congress after serving in the Army, including 13 months in Vietnam, and then 26 years of work in the US Border Patrol. He won his El Paso congressional seat in 1996.
Pelosi said his experience gives him an understanding of the needs of both troops and policy makers. "His appreciation for the dangers inherent in the operation of secret activities in a democracy ensures that he will be a zealous protector of the civil liberties," she said.
In a recent interview, Reyes said Republicans have made a habit of rubber-stamping the Bush administration's programs. Democrats, he said, must act quickly to show they will dig deeply into the government's actions.
Overseeing the 16 US spy agencies is among the most challenging -- and thankless -- tasks in Congress.
Given the committee's inherently secret nature, much of the work is done behind closed doors.
Few members of Congress have a significant constituency in the spy world, and one presidential commission weighing recent intelligence changes called the agencies "headstrong."
Harman is the committee's top Democrat, and her term on the panel expires this year. She could have been reappointed by Pelosi, but the two are said to have differences. In a statement, Harman congratulated Reyes and offered him her "full and enthusiastic support."