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Questioning Congress

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On a recent busy April morning on Capitol Hill, Congressman John F. Tierney, a Democrat from Massachusetts, presided over a hearing that examined an arcane but consequential issue: the sale of sensitive U.S. military equipment on the Internet.

As chairman of the National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Tierney reviews both broad strategic issues and narrower topics with national security implications.

While much of Congress was preoccupied on that particular morning with Iraq and the housing crisis, Tierney was focused on trying to understand a very specific problem and explore possible solutions to it.

With a touch of theater, Tierney’s staff displayed various military items that an undercover congressional investigative team had purchased over the Internet — including sophisticated night-vision goggles, infrared tabs worn by U.S. soldiers, a complete current-issue U.S. military uniform, nuclear, biological and chemical protective gear, as well as body armor currently worn by American troops.

Tierney, joined by several other subcommittee members and a modest-size audience, first questioned investigators from the Government Accountability Office and representatives from the Web sites eBay and Craigslist to better understand how military equipment could be sold over the Internet.

Then he convened a second panel of witnesses from the Department of Defense and U.S. Army to consider whether controls should be tightened or screening improved to better detect the presence of stolen or sensitive material online.

Tierney asked the witnesses a series of direct, probing, practical questions to determine if new laws needed to be written or if the current ones needed to be better enforced.

His primary concern was that sensitive military equipment would fall into the hands of terrorists, criminals or hostile nations, but he also worried that U.S. taxpayer-funded equipment was being stolen or sold for profit.

As the hearing concluded, Tierney and his panel colleagues agreed that the subcommittee would work with the Defense Department and Army to see if a monitoring program developed in 2006 was actually doing its job. And if necessary, Tierney said his panel would draft new legislation to tighten the existing system.

In an interview with The Washington Diplomat, Tierney discussed how these types of oversight hearings are a crucial responsibility of Congress. “I think oversight is a very powerful tool. Next to legislation, it’s the most important part of our business,” he said.

“Congress has been asleep for a bunch of years when it comes to oversight,” he added. “When we [Democrats] got the majority, it was our opportunity to pick the areas very carefully, to have a reason for the oversight, to not take no for an answer when a witness didn’t want to testify. We don’t just want to have a hearing, drop it, and run off to something else.”

Tierney, 56, was first elected to Congress in 1996 to represent the Sixth Congressional District in Massachusetts. A lawyer from Salem, Mass., he was in private practice for more than 20 years before running for Congress. He won his first race by a mere 371 votes, though he has since been easily re-elected to office.

Since assuming the chairmanship of the National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee in 2007, Tierney has held hearings on an intriguing range of issues, from the narrow and technical to the broad and conceptual.

For instance, after the Washington Post reported on patient care problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in early 2007, Tierney held field hearings at Walter Reed to examine the situation, challenging senior Army officers who said they had been unaware of the reported problems and continuing to hold hearings to monitor improvements.

His panel has also held hearings on U.S. relations with Iran, Pakistan and Latin America, as well as meetings to consider national missile defense, weapons in space, the fraying nuclear non-proliferation regime, America’s diplomatic presence abroad, the Darfur crisis in Sudan, and the 2008 Beijing Olympics, not to mention the long-term foreign policy challenges facing the United States.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman, a Democrat from California who is widely viewed as Congress’s toughest investigator. Tierney chairs the subcommittee under Waxman and is quickly earning his own reputation as a forceful but fair investigator.

Tierney said he has learned a lot by observing Waxman and by plunging into his oversight responsibilities. “When you start out with hearings, you want some idea of what you are going to do — if there is going to be a report, or suggested legislation, or proposed changes in appropriations,” he explained. “You have to ask yourself: What is the purpose of this?”

Tierney is also in close contact with the chairmen of the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services Committees to make sure they are not duplicating each other’s work. “We’re not trying to get into some other committee’s bailiwick. I say to my colleagues in the other committees, ‘We’re not trying to steal your thunder.’ If you got something you’re doing, we don’t need to recreate the wheel. There is plenty of stuff out there to do.”

When he assumed the chairmanship, Tierney met with the members of his subcommittee — including Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, the top Republican on the subcommittee — to see what issues they were interested in probing.

“When my subcommittee talked to discuss our plans, one of the things we kept coming back to was the question: What is our overall strategy for national security? Do we have one? One of the things we agreed on is that diplomacy has been an underused tool and it has been for some years,” Tierney said.

So the panel held a wide-ranging hearing on the country’s overseas diplomatic presence, examining the physical structure of U.S. embassies, their location in the outskirts of cities, and the frequent restrictions on diplomatic travel outside of capital cities.

Tierney said it’s important to consider these types of basic, logistical questions to understand the broader diplomatic picture. For example, if diplomats can’t travel and live openly in a country, then what purpose do they serve? Should the United States use smaller facilities, called presence posts, as part of its diplomatic posture? And how should an ambassador coordinate the work of the many U.S. government agencies housed in an embassy?

Tierney’s panel also held two sets of hearings on the broader topic of U.S. foreign policy since 9/11, with testimony from Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute, as well as the co-authors of the “Smart Power” report, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Harvard professor Joseph Nye.

Tierney said he remains concerned that U.S. foreign policy is drifting, only reacting to, instead of shaping, world events and consumed by the war on terrorism. “Things pop up and we run and knock them down. I guess there is always a tendency to do that, but we have to have an overall strategy — and it can’t be 100 percent focused on terrorism,” he argues.

Tierney said he has been particularly proud of his panel’s work on Pakistan and Iran. On the latter, Tierney’s panel has held three hearings trying to understand what is going on now in Iran, to assess America’s limited interaction with that nation, and to ponder the consequences of a possible U.S. attack on Iran.

With regard to Pakistan, Tierney organized several hearings as well as a visit to meet with Pakistani leaders from all walks of life. He came back from the trip convinced that U.S. assistance to Pakistan had become too focused on military programs. Tierney subsequently worked with House leaders and appropriators to shift U.S. funding toward education and reconstruction programs. “We try to make sure our oversight results in some concrete things. This is one example where I think it did,” he noted.

Looking ahead, Tierney wants to carefully examine America’s massive national security budget, assessing its defense, homeland security, non-proliferation and intelligence components.

“It’s a delicate issue. If you push too hard, some say you’re not for a strong defense. We all want a strong defense, but we also want to make sure that the 0 billion we spend for defense is going for programs that actually work,” Tierney said, noting that in particular he’ll be monitoring the national missile defense system, which he remains deeply skeptical of.

Tierney said his panel will also seek ways to bolster the beleaguered nuclear non-proliferation regime, which he calls critical to U.S. and global security — pointing out that the problem of nuclear proliferation will only get worse if the United States doesn’t work closely with other nations to get it under control quickly.

Tierney vows that his panel will continue this kind of vigorous oversight, even if a Democratic administration comes into power in 2009. Although it’s not always easy for a party to probe its own members, Tierney insisted that Congress owes the American people hard but fair investigations of whatever administration is in power.

“That will be a challenge for us, but if we don’t do it, shame on us. If we don’t do it, we deserve to get tossed,” he said. “Our job is to find out where the money is going and to decide if the policy is right. Any administration should welcome congressional oversight.”

About the Author

John Shaw is a contributing editor for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999