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Cokie Roberts Answers Your Questions About Intelligence Committees


We're going to spend a few minutes now answering some of your questions about how Congress is investigating Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election. The House and Senate intelligence committees are leading the investigation. Those committees have overseen U.S. intelligence since the 1970s when lawmakers, led by Senator Frank Church of Idaho, said more oversight was necessary.


FRANK CHURCH: If a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny. And there would be no way to fight back.

MARTIN: We fielded your questions on how the intelligence committees have operated in the past 40 years. And we put them to Cokie Roberts, our commentator and columnist who regularly helps to explain Washington and how politics works. Our colleague Steve Inskeep asks the first question.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: The question comes from Twitter from Jenny Christianson (ph). When did misconduct become so widespread or severe that they formed a committee to investigate?

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Well, that Church committee was really the first. And think about it, Steve. He was talking about the technological capacity of the 1970s, so think how much greater it is today. But a series of abuses of the CIA and FBI had been revealed in the Watergate committee. And then in 1974, there were explosive stories in The New York Times by Seymour Hersh revealing a series of abuses, plots against foreign leaders, the infamous FBI counterintelligence program that involved spying on domestic organizations like the anti-Vietnam War movement, the civil rights movement. And it specifically went after Martin Luther King.

So a series of investigations started, the Church committee being the primary one in the Senate. And when it was done, the Senate voted to establish the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence to ensure ongoing oversight. And Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, FISA, to insist that intelligence agencies receive warrants for spying. So it's those reforms that are in place today. And, for instance, if Trump Tower were surveyed, there'd have to be a warrant or a law would have been violated.

INSKEEP: This is all stuff from the 1970s. But let's remember, Cokie, the country had been around for a couple hundred years before that. Who was watching after intelligence agencies before?

ROBERTS: Basically no one. But from the very beginning - you're quite right - the Continental Congress hired spies. In fact one of them, Thomas Paine of "Common Sense" fame, was fired for leaking. So (laughter) things don't change. And of course, there've always been military spies, starting with Nathan Hale. George Washington was a huge spymaster during the Revolution. But then when he became president, right away, Steve, he asked for a contingency fund in the State Department so that as soon as we had a government, we had our black budget.

INSKEEP: Black budget? That's a modern term essentially for classified spending we in the public never find out exactly how much or where it goes.

ROBERTS: We don't. Now the Congress is supposed to, but the president always balked at telling Congress anything. President Polk refused to say where the money was spent leading up to the Mexican War. It wasn't until after the creation of the CIA in 1947 that there was any attempt at oversight. But then it was just with the chairman and ranking members of the Armed Services Committee and the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. And it was very, very cozy with the intelligence community.

INSKEEP: This leads to another question here that refers to an investigation I'd never heard of before. It's a question from Marianne Shrup (ph) via Twitter. What was the actual outcome of the Pike Committee in 1975, if anything? OK, what was the Pike Committee?

ROBERTS: The Pike Committee was the House version of the Church Committee. And just as we see today, the Senate operated in a much more bipartisan fashion. And the House immediately got into a partisan battle - and the Democrats against the Republican administration, the CIA denouncing the committee, the committee leaking to the newspapers. And it really became lost in the leaks, the whole report of the committee. It did culminate in the creation of the House Intelligence Committee where we're seeing this partisanship again play out while the Senate promises to be much more bipartisan. Now we'll see if that holds true, Steve - if the information it learns takes it in a direction that the Republicans deem dangerous for the president.

INSKEEP: The more things change. Cokie, thanks very much.

ROBERTS: Plus ca change.


INSKEEP: Commentator and columnist and French-speaker Cokie Roberts.


And you can ask Cokie your questions about the history of Washington and how it works with the hashtag #AskCokie on Twitter or by emailing us at AskCokie@npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.