With majorities in both houses of Congress, Democrats will control two of the most delicate but vital instruments of national security oversight: the House and Senate intelligence committees.
In Republican hands these past few years, the panels became known more for what they didn't do than for what they did: for not learning about secret government spying projects, not inquiring about interrogation abuses, and for slow-walking investigations into intelligence failures.
But the two Democrats who will take charge of the panels next year say that's going to change.
Player: Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV)
Position: Chair, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI)
Tall, quiet and genteel, Rockefeller has in the past fielded criticism that he may be too lighweight on national security issues and use a too-light touch with the opposition. Indeed, he has typically eschewed bomb-throwing and confrontation in favor of more discreet efforts -- like writing a secret letter to the vice president. But that may be changing: Rockefeller has declared that his intelligence committee will pursue a "cleanup agenda," to make up for the messes left behind by the White House and his Republican predecessor, Sen. Pat Roberts (KS).
Rockefeller has billboarded his concerns about the Bush administration's "too aggressive" pursuit of secrecy, and has vowed stricter oversight of and inquiry into the NSA's domestic spying program and allegations of detainee torture.
It's the White House's habit of stonewalling, regardless of the issue, which really raises Rockefeller's hackles. "it's like they will only tell you what they want you to know," he told NPR's Steve Inskeep recently. "And I'm sorry, but this administration has carried that to extremes that I have never been familiar with before in intelligence or any other subject.
"We have to have oversight so that we can call them up short when they're doing something which we think is wrong. And right now we think some things they're doing may be wrong."
Player: Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-TX)
Position: House Permanent Subcommittee on Intelligence (HPSCI)
A third-stringer, Reyes comes to the House intel chairmanship with experience and ambition. House Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi (CA) reached past two more senior candidates to pick Reyes to head the committee. He's got some chops: A former border patrol officer and Vietnam vet, Reyes has been a member of HPSCI as well as the chairman of the strategic forces subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee, which oversees nuclear weaponry and military satellite programs.
Reyes has vowed to make current intelligence on Iraq a top priority. In an interview with CQ's Tim Starks, the congressman said he'd focus on "understanding the role of intelligence and the role of intelligence agencies" in scaling down the U.S. military presence in that country. (In a separate interview with Newsweek, however, Reyes said "we have to consider the need for additional troops to be in Iraq.")
Reyes said he would also look into the NSA program and the treatment of detainees in the war on terror. The incoming House chairman added that he wanted to focus also on "emerging threats," which he believed were coming from places as far-flung as Latin America, the Balkans and Russia, as well as Iran and North Korea.