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Ruppersberger nearing end of 12-year run on House intel committee

When Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger joined the House committee that oversees the nation's intelligence agencies, Osama bin Laden was still alive, Edward Snowden was still in college and the government's response to the threat of cyber attacks was still in its infancy.

Now, after 12 years on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence — including the past four as its top-ranking Democrat — the Baltimore County lawmaker is facing a term limit and will likely be given a new committee assignment when the next Congress begins its work in January.

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Ruppersberger's tenure on the panel has coincided with monumental changes in national security — as well as a contentious debate over privacy concerns that reached an apex last year when Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor, leaked documents revealing the government's massive data collection programs.

Ruppersberger's congressional district is home to the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command at Fort Meade. Together, the agencies account for tens of thousands of federal jobs — the exact number is classified — making intelligence and cyber warfare among the most important industries in Maryland.

That's why the former Baltimore County executive said he intends to remain a go-to figure on intelligence issues, regardless of his committee.

"I'll be dealing with the same areas," Ruppersberger said in an interview. "I'm not giving up on this agenda, because it's so important to our country."

Unlike most congressional committees, on which lawmakers accrue seniority with time, House intelligence members are forced off after eight years under an internal policy that's been in place since the committee's creation in 1977. The term limits have sparked criticism from some who say it makes it difficult for members to develop expertise.

Ruppersberger, the first Democrat ever appointed to the intelligence committee as a freshman, already received an extension in 2010 that allowed him to serve for four additional years so he could take on the job as the committee's ranking Democrat. Because of that, he is the longest consecutively serving member in the committee's history.

He has sought another extension, but aides to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — a former ranking member of the intelligence committee herself — have declined to say whether she will honor the request.

Several senior members of the committee have been mentioned as possible replacements for Ruppersberger as ranking Democrat. They include Reps. Mike Thompson of California and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois.

If Ruppersberger loses the seat, he is expected to return to the subcommittee on defense appropriations next year, a powerful panel that has spending authority over many of the same intelligence agencies. In fact, a spot on appropriations is generally considered to be more attractive than intel.

But the 68-year-old congressman has clearly reveled in his role, in which he has developed expertise in modern spycraft and become a sought-after guest on Sunday talk shows to discuss the Obama administration's national security policy. Because he is the most senior Democrat on the panel, he is also one of a small group of lawmakers briefed on the most delicate intelligence operations.

Despite the controversy surrounding intelligence and the deep partisan divide on Capitol Hill, Ruppersberger and the committee's Republican chairman, Mike Rogers of Michigan, have managed to develop one of the strongest bipartisan bonds in Washington. Rogers, a former FBI agent, and Ruppersberger, a former county prosecutor, agreed early on to avoid the kind of sniping that had long defined the committee.

Ruppersberger counts bringing a sense of comity to the panel as one of his most significant achievements.

"We have a commitment to each other that we'd work together," he said.

The improved relations have cleared the way for high-profile, bipartisan legislation. The committee approved four intelligence authorization bills in as many years, setting priorities for security agencies.

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And the House twice passed a bipartisan cybersecurity bill crafted by Ruppersberger and Rogers that was intended to increase information sharing between the government and tech companies in an effort to address potentially crippling cyber attacks. But the bill faced resistance from the White House, and it has stalled in the Senate.

The two also drafted a measure that would remove the controversial collection of telephone data from the NSA and place it instead with the telecommunication companies. That measure has fared less well, though similar ideas remain in play.

Rogers is retiring from Congress this year. He is to be replaced as intelligence chairman by Republican by Rep. Devin Nunes of California.

While the cooperation ushered in by Rogers and Ruppersberger resulted in legislative achievements, it has given some observers pause. Both the House and Senate intelligence committees have been criticized for offering vocal defenses of activities such as the mass collection of phone records that have alarmed the public.

"In some ways, this [collaboration] is a strength that increases the effectiveness of the committee, but in other ways it is a weakness," said Steven Aftergood, who writes on secrecy and security for the Federation of American Scientists.

"The problem is that the spectrum of views about intelligence policy held by the general public — on surveillance, drones, and other topics — is considerably broader than what has been represented on the committee," he said.

Ruppersberger argues that the committee has been "extremely aggressive" on oversight, but because much of the intelligence community's work is necessarily secret, the bulk of that oversight takes place behind closed doors.

At home, Ruppersberger has been a staunch advocate for the federal workforce at Fort Meade. He has pushed for funding to expand development around the base, for instance, and has supported efforts to ensure that local students have a shot at pursuing a career in intelligence if they choose.

Deon W. Viergutz is president of the Fort Meade Alliance, a group of business and community leaders that advocates for the Army base in Anne Arundel County. He said he doesn't anticipate Ruppersberger's cachet on that front to wane, regardless of committee assignment.

"Dutch has worked tirelessly throughout the community and on Capitol Hill to advocate for the installation, and the missions that take place there day in and day out," Viergutz said.

"I would expect that he would continue to be sought out for his expertise and counsel. Whether he's on the committee or not he will continue to stay vested in the region."

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