The work of Congressional committees has provided us with an ongoing stream of revelations and information about the internal (and often hidden) activities of not only the CIA, the FBI, and the Secret Service but also the military services and even agencies such as the DEA and FAA. One of my recent posts included a link to an extended discussion of the information surfaced by the work of the Church Committee – the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities.
In general the Church committee looked “inside” the Central Intelligence Agency, examining a number of its covert Cold War activities and operations in terms of both their effectiveness and their legality under the National Security Acts and the agencies own charter. At the same time the Senate was conducting this oversight, the House initiated its own effort with what came to be referred to as the Pike Committee. The House Committee was officially designated as the United States House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. It had been established in February, 1975; its original chairman, Lucian Nedzi – a strong supporter of the CIA – appears to have become uncomfortable with the efforts of the committee, resigning and leaving Otis Pike in charge of the effort.
The Pike Committee also focused on potential illegal activities of the CIA, the FBI and the NSA however to some extent it took a considerably different approach – investigating agency financial operations and funding and leading to hard questions about the authorization and tracking of covert projects. That approach led them not only inside the operations themselves but upwards into authorization and funding decisions. That direction led to the Executive Office and to extensive protests from the White House, claims of Executive Privilege and challenges to requests for documents with Executive classification.
To a large extent the Pike Committee became the first Congressional effort to actively inquire into and challenge Presidential involvement in potentially illegal intelligence activities. The fact that it was posing a challenge to Presidential privilege was confirmed by the Ford Administration’ ongoing efforts to protect documents and information from the committee. The matter became so contentious that it was feared the Pike Committee might challenge the Executive Office, the matter was headed towards a very real constitutional crisis circa 1975.
In the end a compromise was brokered between the Pike Committee, the CIA and the Ford Administration. Ultimately the Pike Committee was able to produce a report. However conservative opposition within Congress actually suppressed the report and prevented it from becoming public. Ultimately a version of the draft report was leaded to the press and published, documenting one of the first – and one of the very few – true attempts by Congress to assert its legal authority as an equal partner in national security decision making.
Both the Church Committee and Pike Committee work deserves a great deal more contemporary attention than they receive; especially given that they are examples of the extent to which Congress could conceivably assert its authority over what has developed over the decades into what is not commonly referred to as the “Imperial Presidency” – a term that is applicable, at least in regard to national security decision making, regardless of the party or individual holding the office of the President.
If you would like to hear more discussion on the origins and the work of both committees, and specifically on the Pike Committee, you can find it in the links below, leading you to the recent conversations between myself, Chuck Ochelli and Carmine Savastano which explore the history of the JFK assassination and the inquiries that touched on it.