While Reyes was recently named to become chairman of the powerful House Permanent Committee on Intelligence in the upcoming 110th Congress, that was not the deciding factor in his selection.
Rather, it was the leadership role that Reyes played in convincing the Pentagon to spend more than $2.5 billion to expand Fort Bliss. There was plenty of community support behind him, of course. But the result is 20,000 more troops and their families headed to El Paso, as well as the decision to headquarter much of the military’s 21st-century weapons system development administration here.
The role that Reyes played, which is detailed in the Q&A that follows, is one of which most people are unaware.
The changes at Fort Bliss have created a huge boost to the local economy -- one that may well transform a low-wage region into one of the nation’s premier high-tech development hot spots.
Not bad for a Canutillo farm boy.
The oldest of 10 children, Reyes still lives just a mile from where he was born. He believes his childhood on the farm just off Montoya Road gave him some advantages.
“You learn to appreciate work. You learn to work hard, you learn that everything that you get you have to earn,” he said.
He’s also learned that life can come after you, ready or not.
“I was drafted into the military to serve in the Vietnam War,” Reyes said. “That was a life-changing experience for me, first because I got to be part of an organization that I was proud to be a part of. I got to see Europe for seven months; I got to go to Vietnam for 13 months. Of course, that part of it I could have lived without.”
Vietnam, he said, taught him to understand and focus on what’s important. It also instilled in him appreciation for the importance of life “and how things or forces that you have no control over determine who lives and who dies. That was certainly a life-changing experience.”
Reyes’ combat experience ended abruptly, however, when his father, Rafael, died in an auto accident on Mesa Street in the summer of 1968. The accident occurred while the elder Reyes was on his way to the airport to say goodbye to another of his sons who was also going off to Vietnam.
“Because my dad died and because I’m the oldest of the children, the Army recognized that I became the head of the household, and I was discharged that August,” the congressman recalled.
He took the opportunity to apply for every federal government job he could think of, and the U.S. Border Patrol was the first agency to get back to him.
After joining in 1969, Reyes spent the next 26-plus years with the Border Patrol, where he worked his way up to chief of the McAllen Sector in April 1984. He spent a little over the last three years of his career as chief of the El Paso Sector, where he retired in December 1995 to run for congress.
El Paso Inc. interviewed Reyes in his office suite at the Hotel Cortez, in between calls from the national media and Speaker of the House-designate Nancy Pelosi, who picked Reyes for the Intelligence chair over two more senior committee members.
Q. One of the things making you El Pasoan of the Year, besides this most recent important committee appointment in Congress and your decade of service there, is the fact that everybody says you were the point man, the absolutely essential person, in revitalizing Fort Bliss. How did you see that problem, and how did you help bring about the great success El Paso has experienced there?
Well, we started out with a feeling of panic.
I was first elected in 1996, and very early in 1997 we were told that Fort Bliss was on the next BRAC (base realignment and closure) list – and remember that we had just lost the 3rd Cavalry. That was a wake-up call telling we needed to change things.
And so we started working on two tracks. The first track was to figure out how to work hard to make sure that Bliss didn’t get realigned or, potentially, even closed. That was one track.
The second track we didn’t fully implement until we had a plan for the first one. We had a multi-year strategy for making Fort Bliss as BRAC-proof as possible by making it part of the national security landscape, to the point where it would be foolish for the Pentagon to try to close it.
Q. So you participated in a lot of talks among local community leaders about that?
Well, the first person I went to see was Gen. John Costello. And I asked him two things. One was to go up through his military channels and see if it was true what we’d just heard through political channels, namely that Fort Bliss was in danger of being BRACed. And secondly, I asked him to give me a multi-year strategy for what we needed to do to ensure the post’s future. Because by then I was a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
Of course Gen. Costello verified the first point. And then he sat down and he explained to me the projects under military construction that were going to be important to Fort Bliss if we were going to change our future. It was a checklist of 14 or 15 items, and we started working on those.
Fortunately, I was on the Military Construction Committee. The chair was U.S. Rep. Joe Hefley, R-Co. Ironically, his district got the 3rd Cav. But I can’t tell you how supportive Joe was and how much we owe him. He and I just happened to hit it off when I joined that committee.
Anyway, we started working on this problem, and then, well into the third or fourth year, we realized that one of the big issues we were facing if we hoped to fortify Fort Bliss was the issue of water. Because year after year as I went after money for the projects to improve the base, the perception was that we were running out of water. And Pentagon officials kept asking, why invest money in a facility that’s going to dry up and blow away? We knew we had to change that perception.
Q. Everybody we’ve talked to about this process of changing the water perception credits Ed Archuleta at the Public Service Board. What contact did you have with him?
The PSB needed federal funding for some of its water treatment plants and some of the other projects it was working on. And so, when I kept running into this issue of water, I don’t remember at what point, but Ed told me about a project for the future that he thought would work – a desalination plant.
I used that idea in one our hearings when the critics brought up the issue of water. I said first of all we have plenty of water, but secondly, just to reassure you that we’re doing proactive things, we’re looking at a desalination plant for El Paso. All of a sudden that seemed to work, strategy-wise. It worked well.
Ed and I decided it would be a good time to go after some funding for that desal plant. He looked at the money that the PSB could provide, and I looked at the Department of Defense and the Environmental Protection Agency for funding. So, all of a sudden, an idea that was on the back burner became a priority. And now we expect to open that desal plant this summer.
It was an amazing turnaround. We had eliminated the water concerns, and we have the facility that gained the most in the last BRAC round; we have the facility that has been selected for Future Combat Systems. The future looks pretty bright for this area.
And as we started the process of making Fort Bliss BRAC-proof, along the way working with the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce, we also started going after other opportunities, both economic development and opportunities through the military to continue to solidify Fort Bliss. REDCO came along and the rest is history.
Q. It’s amazing what the right person in the right place at the right time can accomplish, but it appears that not a lot of people, outside of REDCO and some of the Chamber folks, realize what a powerful impact you’ve had on this community already.
I always get a kick out of those people who say, ‘Oh, he didn’t do anything. It was going to happen anyway.’ Well, bullshit. It took a lot of work, it took some luck, it took a lot of committed people whom I cajoled and begged – and, fortunately, they were willing to work. It also took, let me tell you, some remarkable military leaders here – Gen. Costello, Maj. Gen. Stanley Green. Every one of the commanders here that I’ve worked with was outstanding and supportive. They were a vital part of our efforts.
Remember, Costello put together a multi-year strategy for us, and we continued moving forward on that. There was a hot-load facility; we became a power-projection platform because I worked on and got a deployment facility that was state-of-the-art. We completed the apron so that the big C5s could taxi here – I mean it was just an incredible multi-year strategy.
Gen. Costello, who’s been retired for many years now, said to me, ‘You know what? I thought, hell, if you can deliver half of these projects, we’ll be lucky.’ But we delivered every single one of them.
I’m very proud of that record, and if people think it would have happened anyway, well, they don’t know beans about the work that we’ve done for 10 years.
Q. So tell us how the Intelligence Committee works. Is it true you meet in secure rooms? Do you get involved in the real spy stuff, or do you merely oversee the budgets of those 16 different spy agencies? Do you know the real secrets about what’s going on out there? If so, you seem fairly calm, so that’s reassuring.
I’m glad you haven’t actually asked what keeps me up at night.
Q. I’m afraid to.
First of all, I was very happy to wind up as chairman of the Intelligence Committee, because I’ve worked very hard to get here.
Early on they’d told me there was no way that I could go on the Armed Services Committee, but I prevailed there. Then-U.S. Rep. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., helped me get on that committee, as did then-U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., and I’m grateful to them. The point I want to make is that when I got on Armed Services, I took a trip with U.S. Rep. Ike Skelton, D- Mo., who was on the Intelligence Committee, and so I knew it existed, but I didn’t know much about it.
On that trip, Ike told me about serving on Intelligence – this was during my first term – and I said, man, that’s a committee I’d love to be part of. Ike said that with my background on the border, I’d be a natural for that. Well, I made my initial request to go on the Intelligence Committee in 1998. I finally got on in the spring of 2001, which was right before 9/11.
I was part of that committee in the run-up to what happened on 9/11, and so I have the perspective of pre 9/11 and post 9/11.
Q. What’s the difference?
Well, there are a number of differences, but first let me answer your question about how that committee operates. Pre 9/11, you’ll remember, we didn’t have a director of national intelligence (DNI). The 16 agencies we oversee pretty much functioned independently, so lack of understanding and lack of cooperation were big issues. You’ve got the CIA and all of these different agencies that are working on keeping this country safe, but they were all working independently. That was part of the problem that created the perfect opportunity for the 9/11 attacks against our country.
Post 9/11, after we held hearings for a year, we came up with the concept of one individual having responsibility for all the agencies. Prior to creating the DNI position, the head of the CIA had two hats – his hat as director of the CIA and the other hat was as coordinator of all the other intelligence agencies.
Q. Coordinator, but no power?
No power. So it was a real issue. That’s one of the big differences.
When it comes to the workings of the committee, it’s pretty much standard operation to have closed sessions, because of the topics we deal with. We meet in a secure environment, and we can’t take phones, pagers or any kind of communication device into our committee hearing room.
In fact, we’re fixing to move from the current location as soon as they finish the Capitol’s underground visitor’s area. They’re building a complex down there specifically for us. It’s an area that’s cloaked electronically so that it can’t be penetrated by radio waves. Even so, the precaution is you can’t take any kind of electronics in there.
As far as the committee’s makeup, there are nine members on the minority side and 12 on the majority side. That’s going to flip in January. There’s a chairman, there’s a ranking member. There’s also a vice chairman. The difference there is when you talk about the chairman and the ranking member, you would think you’re talking about the top dog and his second in command, but it doesn’t work that way. Because the chairman is on the majority side, he designates a vice chairman from the same party who is authorized to act in his stead.
Q. Have you got a vice chair yet?
No, because Nancy hasn’t designated who’s going to be on the committee. Right now, technically, I’m the only one who’s on the Intel Committee. The reality is that probably all the members who are currently on the committee are probably going to be reappointed, plus we Democrats are going to have three additional.
Q. Your job is oversight, which includes fiscal issues. Does it include some basic policy issues as well?
One of the frustrating parts of serving on that committee for six years has been the fact that we’ve rubber-stamped every damn thing that has come along.
Because we were hearing rumors that the administration was thinking about targeting Iraq, immediately after 9/11 I began frequently and consistently asking the question, what role did Iraq or Saddam play in the attacks?
And in those hearings the answer was always, “None.”
Well, as we went down the road and the administration decided to go into Iraq, at one particular hearing the testimony suddenly flipped 180 degrees. All of a sudden Saddam and Iraq had a major role in attacking us on 9/11. It was bullshit. I mean I’d been asking the administration these questions and they’d been consistently saying there was no involvement by Saddam and Iraq. Well, by that time the vice president had been throttling intelligence analysts and cherry-picking this and cherry-picking that.
When I saw them flip, I was furious.
That night I didn’t even sleep, because I was so incensed. I got up in the middle of the night and I wrote a memo to the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, Porter Goss, and to the ranking member. I stated all the things in very general terms that frustrated me. And I said we cannot sit here and tolerate a community that has an epiphany in the middle of this process that all of a sudden Iraq and Saddam are our No. 1 enemy and they had a role in the attacks of 9/11.
What I wanted to do with my memo was create a record, because I knew at that point where we were heading, and it wasn’t going to be with my help. But when they got the memo they classified it, and so it sits in the vaults of the committee today.
I voted against going into Iraq – and I recommended to the Hispanic Caucus that they all oppose it, which they did. And I did so not because I’m a dove or don’t support the military, but because I do support the military, and I don’t think that we should ever go to war without it being the last option. And to manipulate intelligence, to manipulate the process in order to justify going after somebody you don’t like, and accusing them and inventing a cause or reason, is not the way we should function.
Q. Did the press fail in this process, in the lead up to the war?
Oh, we all failed. We allowed ourselves to be bullied. And it points up why checks and balances are so important. Individually we stood up to the administration. I made my statements on the floor and I talked about my experience in Vietnam. I explained why war should be the last option, why we should take our time and why we shouldn’t go into a place that could become a quagmire for us.
Yet all of those things have come to pass, and today we’re wrestling with a situation where we don’t know what the hell the answer is.
That’s going to be one of our first priorities on our committees, but I can’t sit here and tell you where we’re going. I can tell you this, though – we cannot pull out of Iraq and hand that broken country to a government that would become the equivalent of the Taliban. We can’t leave it to be a country that will become a base of operations for the next Al Qaeda, or maybe this Al Qaeda. We can’t do that.
And that’s why I tell people, we know how we got there, we know how we were manipulated, we know what the consequences have been. But now it’s not about how we got there, now it’s about how we’re going to get out and how we’re going to make sure that when we get out we’re not going to leave that place worse than when it was under Saddam Hussein, and worse for us from a threat level.
Q. So that’s one of the central tasks of your chairmanship?
Yeah. And collectively we’re going to have to figure out how we’re going to deal with this. Individually, as committees, we’re going to do our own jobs. Ours will be looking at how intelligence is going to play a role in our ability to support our decision, whatever that decision is, to support that new direction, to support and appreciate the fact that we can’t let Iraq become a base of operations for future Al Qaeda.