Incoming presidents and vice-presidents bring different life experiences to the job. George W. Bush’s only elected experience was as governor of Texas. He was the son of a president and ex-head of the CIA. His father’s political career had almost been derailed by congressional investigations into Iran-Contra. Dubya’s strong inclination was to deny Congress any meaningful role in oversight, especially of the Intelligence Community. It was a worldview that he shared with Dick Cheney. Cheney did have experience on Capitol Hill as a congressman from Wyoming. But Cheney had been the point-man in protecting Poppy Bush from the investigation into Iran-Contra. It was a performance that was rewarded with the position of Secretary of Defense in Poppy’s administration. More formative to Cheney’s thinking was his experience as President Ford’s chief-of-staff, where he watched helplessly as the Church Committee unraveled the Family Jewels of CIA and executive crimes. The late-1970’s intelligence reforms (e.g., the FISA law) were anathema to Dick Cheney.

Barack Obama and Joe Biden come from a different place. As Senators, they are mindful of that body’s prerogatives. While they will be tempted, as all administrations are, to guard against Congressional oversight, they will not be ideologically opposed to it. That’s why I find hope in incoming Senate Intelligence Chairman Diane Feinstein’s words:

Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat expected to chair the Senate Intelligence Committee next year, called Thursday for new leadership for the nation’s intelligence community.

“My view is that it’s time for a new start,” Feinstein said in an interview.

Her call deals a blow to the prospects of Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell and CIA Director Michael V. Hayden carrying over to the administration of President-elect Barack Obama.

Feinstein is poised to take the gavel of the Intelligence panel from John D. Rockefeller IV , D-W.Va., who is expected to chair the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Both McConnell and Hayden meanwhile signaled publicly that they would like to remain in their posts under Obama.

Democrats who follow the intelligence community agree that cooperation within the intelligence community has improved under Hayden, McConnell, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Pentagon intelligence chief James R. Clapper.

But McConnell and Hayden have been outspoken defenders of the Bush administration’s surveillance and interrogation policies that have drawn critical fire from the same Democrats. Feinstein in particular has been critical of CIA interrogation practices she considers torture.

“I want to see the Senate Intelligence Committee with much closer oversight and a much closer relationship with the intelligence community,” Feinstein said.

I am not entirely happy with the prospect of Sen. Feinstein taking over the Intelligence gavel, but I am pleased that she wants to clean house. I don’t think she will investigate aggressively enough (certainly not on a Frank Church scale) but you can hardly investigate at all unless you remove the criminals from positions of power. This is the correct first step. Sen. Feingold nails it:

“I am confident President-elect Obama understands the need for new leadership of the intelligence community and will appoint competent, capable people who will work aggressively to ensure the safety and security of Americans without undermining our laws and Constitution,” Feingold stated in a news release. “For eight years, the current administration has shown contempt for the rule of law, including in intelligence-related matters, while repeatedly refusing to work cooperatively with Congress. At the same time, the administration has failed to develop comprehensive strategies to protect our nation against our most immediate threat, al Qaeda and its affiliates. New leadership is needed to move our intelligence policies in the right direction.”

Because Obama and Biden served in the Senate during the Bush years, they are much more likely to be sympathetic to Feingold’s view than Bush and Cheney, with their life experiences, proved to be.

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