Remember the 1970s, When Congress Actually Stood Up to the Intelligence Community?

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John Prados is a senior analyst with the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C. This current book is The Family Jewels: The CIA, Secrecy, and Presidential Power (University of Texas Press). For more on this and other related issues visit his website. 

It was sad last week to wake up to news of the passing of former New York Democratic congressman Otis G. Pike. During the fierce debates of 1975, known as the “Year of Intelligence” (because the controversies of the day led to the first significant investigations of the actions of U.S. intelligence agencies) Representative Pike held to a steady course in the face of a concerted effort by the Ford administration -- and the CIA, NSA, and FBI of the day -- to head off any public inquiry.

Sound familiar?

Like the current controversy, ignited by leaks from NSA contract employee Edward Snowden, the Year of Intelligence began with revelations of U.S. intelligence spying on American citizens revealed by investigative reporting by journalist Seymour Hersh and published in the New York Times. Mr. Pike headed the committee of inquiry the House of Representatives established to explore intelligence activities. In contrast to the deferential chiefs of congressional intelligence committees today -- Senator Diane Feinstein and Representative Mike Rogers -- Pike was in nobody’s pocket and he persevered to the end.

The House of Representatives intelligence investigation began under a different congressman, Lucien N. Nedzi, who left under fire when it came out that he had collaborated with the CIA -- much as current committee chairpersons have with the NSA -- in concealing the record of agency abuses. In 1975 those were recorded in a document CIA wags had dubbed the “Family Jewels” (see my book The Family Jewels). Nedzi, it turned out, had known of the domestic spying charges for more than a year and had merely demanded private explanations. His investigating committee had to be reconstituted. The House selected Representative Pike to lead the fresh inquiry. Pike started over from square one.

There was a parallel investigation underway in the Senate led by Senator Frank Church. The Pike investigation is far less well known than Church’s inquiry. In part that is because Pike’s report was suppressed -- President Gerald R. Ford lobbied Congress hard to avoid its disclosure, including sending a letter to House members and personally telephoning key politicos to nail down votes against releasing the document. But Pike also faced major obstacles. One of them was access. Frank Church made accommodations with the Ford White House that set ground rules on what his people could see. Where the CIA, however reluctantly, permitted Church investigators to view some of its materials -- ones the White House vetted -- President Ford’s approach with the Pike committee was different. Representative Pike refused to accept the procedures the White House and CIA had designed to limit investigative access. The agency countered by refusing to supply Pike with any materials at all, on the excuse his committee could not protect classified information. Since a 1921 law prohibited the executive branch from denying Congress any material it required for the conduct of an inquiry, the Ford administration could not actually maintain its position and finally had to compromise. Otis Pike did promise to safeguard secret documents but he would not budge on the principle of access. As a result the Pike committee had the benefit of some materials the Church investigators never saw.

Administration obstructionism continued. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger refused to appear when called to testify, and resisted a subpoena once the House voted that. Certain requested documents (National Security Agency reports, would you believe it, the contents of which Mr. Kissinger had already leaked to journalists) were denied in spite of the law. Executive-legislative cooperation in the case of the Pike investigation remained minimal.

In addition to his other obstacles, Congressman Pike had a deadline problem. Because of the Nedzi fiasco the new investigation only got started at mid-year. Ford administration officials lobbied hard to prevent the House from giving Pike more time. They succeeded. And then once the report had been completed President Ford intervened to suppress it.

Portions of the Pike report promptly leaked, to CBS reporter Daniel Schorr. Excepting that material, from that day to this the public has never seen the complete Pike report. But it is clear from the leaked portions that Otis Pike, despite having half the time the Church committee enjoyed (insufficient in their case too, by the way), and in the face of executive branch obstruction, succeeded in getting to the bottom of a number of key intelligence questions. Congressman Pike’s leadership -- and his integrity in resisting White House and CIA maneuvers to affect information -- were keys to this achievement.

Congress today would benefit from integrity like Pike’s. The present intelligence committees seem intent on avoiding issues, not engaging them. Not only is this apparent in their diffident approach to the NSA scandal, it is visible in the Senate committee’s failure to call out the CIA on its effort to stonewall the committee on CIA torture. The Senate committee’s majority staff spent several years on a deep inquiry into agency rendition and torture programs. Their report was done before the end of 2012, and the committee voted on party lines to release it. The CIA has sat on the document ever since.

Otis Pike would not have let the spooks get away with shenanigans like this. Diane Feinstein is no Otis Pike. Though senators have complained of the high-handed CIA actions -- or the lack of them -- Feinstein has applied no effective pressure on the agency. She has also scrambled to protect the National Security Agency from the consequences of its own domestic spying scandal.

We miss Otis Pike’s integrity.

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