WASHINGTON -- In the shadowy world of spooks and "spec ops," Rep. Adam Smith has become even more of a player.
He won't be skulking down the back alleys of some Third World capital or leading daring clandestine raids on al-Qaida strongholds. Instead, he will be operating in a House committee room and a super-secure underground suite at the Capitol. Even so, the Washington Democrat will be privy to secrets and policies few know about.
A day after returning from a Middle East trip where he met with strongman Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Smith was appointed to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Smith was already chairman of an Armed Services subcommittee with jurisdiction over the nation's Special Operations forces and, among other things, he has visited spec ops camps along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
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"It seems like Congressman Smith has found the nexus of all the emerging security threats this country faces," said Loren Thompson, a national security analyst for the Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based think tank.
Despite the intrigue, this is serious stuff.
As a member of the Intelligence Committee, Smith will have access to highly classified information. But he will also be among the roughly two dozen of the 435 House members with access to "Title 50" data -- the raw intelligence that shows where it came from and how it was gathered.
The intelligence comes from 16 different agencies and provides the backdrop for setting U.S. foreign and military policy. As chairman of the Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee for the past two years, Smith has seen intelligence that has often been "filtered." No longer.
"My entire focus has been Special Operations," Smith said. "They take the lead on the global war on terror. But the intelligence piece is critical. It helps fill in the blanks about what we are doing to counter violent terrorists."
Smith has ties, developed during the presidential campaign, to the White House's national security staff. Before he left on his recent trip to Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Israel, he talked with National Security Adviser JamesJones and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice. When he got back, he again talked with Jones.
Initial reports indicated the Obama administration had dispatched Smith to Damascus to meet with Assad. Smith said that wasn't true, but in some ways Smith could emerge as one of the congressional pointmen sometimes sent to the world's trouble spots for informal meetings with sometimes hostile leaders without making it an official state visit. These trips can help clear the way for later visits by administration officials.
"That's what I want to do," Smith said in an interview. "The Obama administration has been encouraging a variety of trips."
A seven-term congressman, Smith has visited Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Malaysia, the Philippines and virtually every nation in the Middle East. Upcoming are trips to northern Africa and the Horn of Africa, including such hot spots as the Sudan, Ethiopia, Chad and Niger.
Smith said he has never felt threatened during his overseas travels, as congressional delegations are surrounded by tight security.
The congressman has also been a visitor to the Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida. Among those he talks with is Adm. Eric Olson, who heads the Special Operation Command and is a Tacoma native whose mother, Dawn Lucien, is a former Tacoma city councilwoman.
"It's the Tacoma connection," Smith said. "I knew his mother before I knew him."
Smith's interest in national security issues also includes an emphasis on global development, including reducing extreme global poverty, which can serve as a breeding ground for terrorists. He sees it as a key to defeating global terrorism and is quick to point out that Special Operations operatives are not only highly trained fighters, but their language and other skills make them vital in helping to stabilize civilian populations in such places as the Philippines.
"Defense Secretary Bill Gates and Eric Olson say defeating terrorism is not just about the military," Smith said.
Smith shies away from references to the war on terrorism.
"It's not a football game," Smith said. But Smith adds there has been progress. "We have had considerable success in disrupting their operational capability. But I do not think we have had success in disrupting the support for their ideology. We haven't turned the corner on stopping the spread of their ideology."
Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., who served on the House Intelligence Committee for eight years, including four years as the top Democrat, praised Smith's appointment to the committee.
"Being on the committee will help Adam better understand how intelligence can help Special Operations do a better job," said Dicks, who is now a member of the House Intelligence Oversight Committee.
Thompson said Smith may now be in a position to better help spec ops forces deal with the terrorist threat.
"It makes a lot of sense for him to go on that committee," Thompson said. "We are good at locating missile silos and tanks, but not finding terrorists. We are spending $1 billion a week on intelligence and can't find the tallest guy in Afghanistan."
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