The first congressman to battle the NSA is dead. No-one noticed, no-one cares.
“Pike will pay for this, you wait and see—we’ll destroy him for this.” —Mitchell Rogovin, CIA special counsel, 1976Last month, former Congressman Otis Pike died, and no one seemed to notice or care. That’s scary, because Pike led the House’s most intensive and threatening hearings into US intelligence community abuses, far more radical and revealing than the better-known Church Committee’s Senate hearings that took place at the same time. That Pike could die today in total obscurity, during the peak of the Snowden NSA scandal, is, as they say, a “teachable moment” —one probably not lost on today’s already spineless political class.
In mid-1975, Rep. Pike was picked to take over the House select committee investigating the US intelligence community after the first committee chairman, a Michigan Democrat named Nedzi, was overthrown by more radical liberal Democrats fired up by Watergate after they learned that Nedzi had suppressed information about the CIA’s illegal domestic spying program, MH-CHAOS, exposed by Seymour Hersh in late 1974. It was Hersh's exposés on the CIA domestic spying program targeting American dissidents and antiwar activists that led to the creation of the Church Committee and what became known as the Pike Committee, after Nedzi was tossed overboard.
Pike was an odd choice to take Nedzi’s place—he was a conservative Cold War Democrat from a mostly-Republican Long Island district, who’d supported the Vietnam War long after most northern Democrats abandoned it, and who loathed do-gooder Kennedy liberals and Big Government waste. So no one expected Pike to challenge the National Security State and executive privilege so aggressively and righteously—and some argued, recklessly—as he wound up doing.
The reason is simple if you think in 1975 terms. Pike was an ambitious political animal—and in 1975, standing up to the secrecy-obsessed NatSec State like Warren Beatty and Robert Redford did on screen seemed like smart politics. Pike was looking to trade up to the Senate in 1976, just as Frank Church was looking to use the Church Committee hearings to springboard into the White House.
Pike was less interested in sensational scandals like Church’s poison darts and foreign assassination plots than he was in getting to the guts of the intelligence apparatus, its power, its funding, its purpose. He asked questions never asked or answered since the start of the Cold War: What was America’s intelligence budget? What was the purpose of the CIA, NSA and other intelligence agencies and programs? Were they succeeding by their own standards? Were taxpayers getting their money’s worth? Were they making America safer?
Those were exactly the questions that the intel apparatus did not want asked. The Church Committee focused on excesses and abuses, implying that with the proper reforms and oversights, the intelligence structures could be set right. But as the Pike Committee started pulling up the floorboards, what they discovered quickly led Rep. Pike and others to declare that the entire intelligence apparatus was a dangerous boondoggle. Not only were taxpayers getting fleeced, but agencies like the NSA and CIA were a direct threat to America’s security and democracy, the proverbial monkey playing with a live grenade. The problem was that Pike asked the right questions—and that led him to some very wrong answers, as far as the powers that be were concerned.
It was Pike’s committee that got the first ever admission—from CIA director William Colby—that the NSA was routinely tapping Americans' phone calls. Days after that stunning confession, Pike succeeded in getting the head of the NSA, Lew Allen Jr., to testify in public before his committee—the first time in history that an NSA chief publicly testified. It was the first time that the NSA publicly maintained that it was legally entitled to wiretap Americans’ communications overseas, in spite of the 1934 Communications Act and other legal restrictions placed on other intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
It was also the first time an NSA chief publicly lied to Congress, claiming it was not eavesdropping on domestic or overseas phone calls involving American citizens. (Technically, legalistically, the NSA argued that it hadn't lied—the reason being that since Americans weren’t specifically “targeted” in the NSA's vast data-vacuuming programs in the 1970s, recording and storing every phone call and telex cable in computers which were then data-mined for keywords, that therefore they weren’t technically eavesdropping on Americans who just happened to be swept up into the wiretapping vacuum.)
Pike quickly discovered the fundamental problem with the NSA: It was by far the largest intelligence agency, and yet it was birthed unlike any other, as a series of murky executive orders under Truman at the peak of Cold War hysteria. Digging into the NSA’s murky beginnings, it quickly became clear that the agency was explicitly chartered in such a way that placed it beyond legal accountability, out of reach of the other branches of government. Unlike the CIA, which came into being under an act of Congress, the NSA’s founding charter was a national secret.
In early August, 1975, Pike ordered the NSA to produce its “charter” document, National Security Council Intelligence Directive No. 6. The Pentagon’s intelligence czar, Albert Hall, appeared before the Pike Committee that day—but without the classified NSA charter. Hall reminded Pike that the Ford White House had offered to show the NSA charter document to Pike’s committee just as it had done with Church’s Senate Committee members, who had agreed to merely view the charter at a government location outside of Congress, without entering the secret document into the Senate record. Officially, publicly, it still didn’t exist. Pike refused to accept that:
“You’re talking about the document that set up the entire N.S.A., it’s one which all members [of Congress] are entitled to see without shuttling back and forth downtown to look at.”Assistant Defense Secretary Hall told an incredulous Pike that he hadn’t brought the NSA charter with him as he’d been told to, and that he couldn’t because “I need clearance” and the charter “has secret material in it.”
“It seems incredible to me, very frankly, that we are asked to appropriate large amounts of money for that agency which employs large numbers of people without being provided a copy of the piece of paper by which the agency is authorized.”Pike’s investigations led him to believe that the combined intelligence agencies were massively understating their budgets, and that the true figure was in the area of $10 billion in 1975 dollars (about $43 billion today), with the NSA by far the largest intelligence agency of all. Broken down, he discovered that about one-fifth of the FBI’s budget went to counterintelligence, largely wasted except as it targeted and harassed leftist dissidents and political opponents. He estimated that the CIA spent about a third of its budget bribing or funding foreign political parties and foreign politicians, including in allied countries like Italy. And that the NSA was a powerful tool in some of the most nefarious—and illegal—domestic surveillance programs.
For example, the CIA-run MH-CHAOS program (which I wrote about here and here in the days after the Snowden story first broke last summer—an illegal domestic spying program which grew out of the CIA’s surveillance of Ramparts magazine and the mighty Warren Hinckle) used the NSA to provide thousands of files on US antiwar activists, celebrities, dissidents and even political figures. It became increasingly clear that if you really wanted to reform and restructure the US intelligence community, you had to take on the NSA.
When the Pike Committee started looking into what taxpayers were really getting for their $10 billion annual investment in intelligence, things went from bad to worse. Pike charged the NSA with taking unacceptable risks that threatened to spark war with the Soviets on several occasions, using Navy subs, including nuclear-armed subs, to penetrate Soviet territorial waters to perform intelligence activities. On a few occasions, the Navy subs doing NSA missions were spotted and pursued by Soviet warships and air forces. Perhaps the craziest revelations involved Navy submarine missions inside the Soviet naval ports in Vladivostok, where "technicians" attached small transmitters to cables that connected Vladivostok's naval installations with their counterparts in Moscow, all of which was recorded into NSA computers in Ft Meade, Maryland.
Did those risky and expensive intelligence operations make the United States safer? Did they prevent attacks on America or American interests, or correctly warn the White House of some impending crisis? To answer that, Pike looked into some major world events to see how US intelligence fared: The 1973 Yom Kippur War; Turkey’s 1974 invasion of Cyprus; and the 1974 coup in Portugal (as well as the US intelligence failure in the 1968 Tet Offensive).
The answers were devastating and embarrassing—in every instance, US intelligence failed miserably. In October 1975, while the hearings were still ongoing, Pike told the New York Times,
“If an attack were to be launched on America in the very near future, it is my belief that America would not know that the attack were about to be launched.”To find out why US intelligence was such a dangerous and expensive boondoggle, Pike summoned Secretary of State Kissinger to testify— but Kissinger refused to appear. Pike wasn’t playing ball the way Church was, so the Ford Administration and the intelligence community decided to stop cooperating and to start pushing back—stonewalling or ignoring subpoenas, gumming up the investigation’s gears. The Pike Committee held Kissinger in contempt; Kissinger responded that he was the victim of Congressional “McCarthyism”— and much of the Washington Establishment backed up the invented Kissinger-as-McCarthyism-victim meme.
Meanwhile, an even more radical subcommittee on privacy in the House, headed by Bella Abzug, targeted the NSA’s domestic spying program, subpoenaing government officials and the heads of the major telecoms and cable telex firms—AT&T, ITT, Western Union and RCA. The more the House dug into the NSA’s foundations, the more they discovered about the murky extralegal arrangements and deals made between private telecom firms and the National Security State apparatus. In the late 1940s, as the NSA was being formed out of the Army Security Agency and other military signal intelligence branches, Truman’s top defense officials cajoled the major US cable telex firms to agree to let the nascent NSA tap into all international communications. Some of the firms were more reluctant than others; all asked for written legal assurances and legislative action, but were given less than they were promised. Everything remained legally murky—promises, but nothing concrete and publicly legalized, like the NSA itself. [For more on this, read James Bamford's excellent history of the NSA, "Puzzle Palace."]
To prevent the public from learning that the NSA had programs physically tapping and recording all international telex cables, President Ford invoked executive privilege for the first time in history on behalf of private corporations, to exempt them from having to testify to Abzug’s committee. Eventually, some went ahead and testified anyway. Like I said, for a brief period in the mid-1970s, the smart money was on the Robert Redford anti-government heroes...
But what Abzug, Pike, Church and others hadn’t counted on was that some seemingly-permanent cultural changes turned out not to be as permanent as thought. The shock from the stream of revelations was no longer so inspiring—as more dirty linen was aired, it had a cumulative numbing effect on much of the public, turning them away from politics—away from the institutions they trusted, and away from the political mavericks taking them on—away from it all, and inward, just as the Baby Boomers themselves were turning inward in droves, away from messy political struggles, and into the purity of personal fulfillment...away from struggling for world peace, in favor of seeking inner peace.
What Pike and Church were uncovering turned out to be something much darker and harder to process than Watergate. With Watergate, there was a simpler narrative that reaffirmed America's own fairytales about itself: Here was a bad apple, Nixon, and a few bad apples around him, eventually exposed and overthrown by the good guys—the valiant press, the politicians with integrity—proving that the American System worked after all.
But what the Pike Committee (and to a lesser extent the Church Committee) revealed was something much more systemic, much more complex and depressing to grapple with.
As Pike put it, in Watergate the American people were asked to believe that “their President had been a bad person. In this situation they are asked much more; they are asked to believe that their country has been evil. And nobody wants to believe that.”
Watergate was inspiring; the Pike Committee was a "bummer" (in the parlance of their times).
American public opinion proved to be fickle and shallow, and the reactionaries in the intelligence community took advantage of this fickleness to destroy Pike and others like him. When in January 1976 the Pike Committee approved its draft report slamming the intelligence community as a dangerous boondoggle, calling for radical budget reductions, the abolition of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and other radical structural reforms, the special counsel to CIA director George H. W. Bush called Pike’s office and warned that if the report was approved, “we’ll destroy him for this.”
“I’m serious, there will be retaliation,” Rogovin said. “Any political ambitions that Pike had in New York are through. We will destroy him for this.”And so they did. The Pike Committee’s report was quashed by a vote in the House. Portions of the Pike Committee report were leaked to the Village Voice by CBS reporter Daniel Schorr, which only made the Pike Committee look worse, "irresponsible" as they put it. Newly-appointed CIA director Bush accused Pike of losing hundreds of classified documents, making matters even worse. The House not only voted to quash the Pike Committee report, it launched a separate new investigation into the Pike Committee—who leaked the classified report to Schorr? Who lost the alleged lost documents? The House investigation into Pike's committee lasted months, ending with Schorr, who'd been fired by CBS, dragged before Congress to testify. Through it all, Pike, the conservative Democrat, was made to look like a loose cannon and a revolutionary radical in his conservative Long Island district, where local Republican officials started openly red-baiting him. Pike backed out of his Senate run, and quit politics for good two years later. Rightly sensing a massive GOP backlash in the 1978 elections, Pike bitterly complained to a New York Times reporter that voters in his own district were driving around with bumper stickers on their cars reading "Pike Is 2 Liberal 4 Me".
Bella Abzug’s committee report on the NSA and privacy was likewise quashed, and she was out of Congress, and out of political life, the following year.
Frank Church also lost out: from leading Democratic Party nominee for president in early 1976, to not-even-vice-president material a few months later. The next time he ran for his Senate seat in 1980, he lost to a crypto-Bircher by a couple thousand votes, in a contest that received murky outside campaign funding. By the time Reagan triumphantly won a second term in office, Frank Church was dead of cancer, and whatever positive reforms he was able to push through during the Carter years were long undone—thanks to Reagan's EO 12333, the CIA was now authorized to engage in some domestic spying activities so long as it involved "terrorism," and the FBI was once again infiltrating and harassing leftist dissidents on a scale that would've made J. Edgar proud.
By 1978, the reform energy was dead. As quickly as that, the culture seemed to want to forget about it and brush it all under the carpet again. As a Washington Post reporter, George Lardner, put it that year,
“All that seems left is the steady tattoo of suggestions that the scandals were somehow imagined.”Today, there’s an underlying assumption that exposing dark government secrets is somehow transformative in itself, even without a wider politics to frame it. It’s hard to know where that silly assumption comes from: a vestigial Freudian faith in the transformative power of dark secrets brought to light? Are we really that foolish?
What we have instead: No hearings, no politics, no frame to make sense of this or to transform our lives for the better. Instead, we have the language of public relations and marketing, the rush to frame the story, feeding the outrage monkey and nothing to show for it.
Any politician’—or political handler— with a sense of history will point to Otis Pike’s fate: He stuck his neck out and took on the National Security State on terms that should’ve appealed to common sense conservative values: Are taxpayers getting fleeced? Is America safer under these programs? He was destroyed. And after he was destroyed, he was forgotten. Now he’s dead, and no one noticed, or cared.
[Sources include: "Puzzle Palace" by James Bamford; "Challenging The Secret Government" by Kathryn Olmsted; archived articles in the New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek]
[Image via the Bend Bulletin]