5 Staffers to Watch on the House Intelligence Committee

Sara Sorcher
National Journal

After the media revealed the National Security Agency's online- and phone-surveillance programs, leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the House Intelligence Committee got busy explaining to lawmakers the program they have been secretly overseeing for years.

Here are five key staffers with Top Secret compartmentalized clearances who work on the committee, often staying behind the scenes as they deal with issues ranging from the Iranian nuclear threat to Syria's chemical weapons.

Michael Allen, majority staff director

The committee's top staffer joined the panel in 2011, but he is very familiar with the Hill, including from his time as President George W. Bush's senior director for legislative affairs on the National Security Council, where he also served as senior director for counter-proliferation strategy.

Yet in all of Allen's experience, the NSA surveillance disclosure was a unique situation, because the Obama administration declassified aspects of a secret program to defend it. Committee members defended the program, Allen says, "in part because of the oversight work they had done on the programs before Snowden leaked them."

The committee held an open hearing on the topic, but it's too soon to determine what's next. "The intelligence committee is playing a leading role in helping everybody understand the context for the programs," says Allen, 40, a Vanderbilt grad with a University of Alabama law degree and a master's in international law from Georgetown University.

Rogers's top priority is bolstering Congress's oversight of intelligence programs, yet that largely happens in secret. The classified annexes in the authorization bills the committee passed the last three years, Allen says, are "the real engine of oversight over the massive U.S. intelligence enterprise."

Heather Moeder Molino, minority staff director

The NSA is headquartered in committee ranking Democrat Dutch Ruppersberger's Maryland district. This makes Molino "really familiar" with the agency, because she worked her way up the ranks in her boss's Washington office, beginning in 2003 as a press secretary.

When the NSA story broke, the minority also snapped to action under the direction of Molino, who joined the committee in 2011 and now oversees a staff of eight.

"We've tried to make sure the Democratic members understand what is legally allowed and what's not, what in the press that is true and what's not," Molino says. "There's so much misinformation out there and mischaracterization, it's really important."

Military and intelligence issues are in Molino's background, though she was not always behind the scenes. Molino was a television reporter for 10 years and met her husband, who was in the military, at Fort Bragg in North Carolina during that time. A Boston native, Molino, 40, is a Cornell University graduate. She lived in many places before her Capitol Hill years—from Fort Bragg to Roanoke, Va., to Seattle, to South Korea—and has two young children.

"So I'm a busy woman," she says.

Darren Dick, majority deputy staff director

The NSA revelations were not "a surprise to the committee," Dick says.

So its members—and staff—are now focused on continuing oversight and demonstrating to the public why it should have confidence these intelligence activities are conducted "in accordance to the laws and ideals the American people expect."

Rogers hosted briefings for the Republican conference with officials from the NSA, Justice Department, and Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Of course, the NSA isn't the committee's only issue, but briefings with officials are always important to help lawmakers and 19 GOP staffers "deal with the various national security issues that are confronting the nation, whether it's North Korea or China or Russia or Afghanistan. There is a whole plethora of issues that keeps the entire team busy."

Dick joined the committee in 2011 from EMC Corporation, where he was senior manager and counsel for government relations. A Navy Reserve intelligence officer, he also deployed to Afghanistan during that time. A former counsel and deputy staff director on the Senate Intelligence panel, Dick, 43, has spent a cumulative 12 years working in Congress. A Sterling College grad, Dick has a University of Kansas law degree and a master's from the U.S. Naval War College.

Bryan Smith, majority budget director

Smith converts policy into dollars. Every time Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich, has a new initiative, Smith, 59, works with other staffers to find offsetting savings in the budget that won't significantly impact U.S. intelligence capabilities.

After a "big flap" like the NSA leaks, "we have to fix that," Smith says. The committee does not yet know what to fix in this case, because it's unclear how Snowden was able to get the access he did.

However, in theory, if the U.S. needs to bolster digital safeguards to monitor which employees have access to certain information and needs new computer systems, that would likely require a budget adjustment, Smith says, noting, "There's almost always a money angle to any problem."

The Ohio native graduated from Bowling Green State University and has an MBA and master's in international relations from George Washington University. He joined the committee in 2010, coming from the Senate Intelligence panel.

A former Air Force officer, Smith later held prominent positions across government, including chief financial officer at the office of the Director of National Intelligence. Smith has been a CIA senior intelligence officer and worked at the Office of Management and Budget and as a State Department nuclear-arms negotiator.

Robert Minehart, minority senior policy adviser

In 1982, as a graduate student in mechanical engineering at West Virginia University, Minehart met with then-Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who advised him to gain "serious experience" before following his dream to become a Hill staffer.

Byrd suggested he pursue Intelligence, and put his name in for a CIA fellowship. Minehart later went to the NSA as a "technical person," where he formally began his two-decade intelligence career.

Minehart finally joined the Intelligence committee in 2005, and in recent weeks was a go-to NSA expert. Lawmakers have different opinions on the NSA issue, but Minehart, 56, uses his technical know-how to explain how the programs work. He personally believes national security and privacy are not mutually exclusive. "[At the NSA] we never ever collect against an American unless there are proper court orders.... We would be fired instantaneously," he said.

Minehart's badge now gives him access to the 17 different agencies and organizations the committee oversees, and he likes to bring lawmakers along. "When you walk up [to a satellite] and it's the size of a Greyhound bus, that puts things in perspective," he said. Secrecy is omnipresent. The committee's workspace is a secure area, but walking in the hallway, "your mind has to completely shift," Minehart says. "I don't usually talk to media."

CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story incorrectly identified the office in which Molino worked. It was Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger's Washington office.

Hot Seats is a weekly series highlighting significant staff positions in the 113th Congress. To suggest a position or staffer for the list, please tweet to @NJLeadership or e-mail Managing Editor Kristin Roberts at kroberts@nationaljournal.com.