Between Illegality and Incompetence

Otis Pike and Exposing the NSA

If an attack were to be launched on America in the very near future, it is my belief that America would not know that attack were about to be launched.

— Otis G. Pike, New York Times, Oct 18, 1975

History is by some marvels of anti-institutional warriors.  Now, the names of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden tend to find copy and coverage, leakers and soldiers against tight lipped secrecy.  But last month, when former New York Congressman Otis G. Pike died, there was barely a murmur. Obituaries proved few in number.  Most were colourless and unreflective.

As Mark Ames of Pando Daily (February 4) quite rightly pointed out, the barely reported, and unremarked death of that great challenger of the national security complex was stunning, a “teachable moment” even as the Snowden snowstorm continues its effects.  Such a moment was “probably not lost on today’s already spineless political class.” Wither, sadly, the denizens of genuine reform.

In 1975, the conservative Democrat from Long Island District was picked to chair the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, ostensibly to investigate the US intelligence community.  He was a political figure on the make.  His ideal target would be the bloated security state that had come to the fore during the Nixon presidency.

He was the designated replacement of Michigan Democrat Lucien Nedzi, one who simply did not cut the radical mustard.  This was not because of overtaxing zeal on the part of more zealous Democrats who wanted to see heads roll.  In the furious haze of Watergate, it came to light that Nedzi, despite being liberal, wasn’t quite squeaky clean.  He had suppressed information about MH-CHAOS, the CIA’s illegal domestic spying program. Long before the program had been exposed by the beavering of Seymour Hersh, Nedzi had realised that the CIA has fallen foul of the law. As for the CIA program, he was less than convinced by Hersh’s strong case.

This theme would continue during the investigation.  The tome-like compendium of CIA abuses that had been accumulated ran long – 693 pages in all.  With euphemistic cynicism, CIA director William Colby termed these the “family jewels”.  While Nedzi wished these jewels to be revealed in their brilliantine splendour to the American public, he was soon convinced by Colby to take the reticent route.  After all, he had considerable respect for Nedzi’s insistence “on reading the individual items in the family jewels list in great detail”, and seeking “repeated reassurances that these kinds of activity would never be carried out in the future.”  No “catharsis” was needed, as it would harm the agency.

Then came Pike’s stirring moment.  Three questions, as noted by Kathryn S. Olmstead in her work Challenging the Secret Government, preoccupied him.  How much was the intelligence community costing the US?  How well did it perform its job?  And what risks did it pose?  At first, there was nothing suggesting Pike would rock the intelligence boat.  Colby, at first, was not worried, given that Pike seemingly “wasn’t after the diddly little abuses.”  Even the CIA’s outside counsel, Mitchell Rogovin, did not sense trouble brewing.

Then came the trouble. The Pike Committee insisted on removing the veil of secrecy surrounding the budget behind the intelligence community.  The reasoning was sound enough, coming from Article 1, section 9 of the Constitution making “account of the receipts and expenditures of all public money” in the running of government.

In his ribbing, and at times abrasive questioning, Pike sought to extract a seemingly invisible National Security Agency from the budget.  “Can members of Congress find the NSA in the document you prepared?” fired Pike at James T. Lynn, director of the Office of Management and Budget.  The response: “It is not to be put in the budget of the United States.”  No concealment, insisted Lynn, was taking place.  “This is in conformance with the law.”  Pike was unrelenting: “When you can’t find it in the budget, but you tell us it is there, I submit that it is legitimate to characterize that as being concealed.”

The revelations as to what the NSA was up proved juicy – and alarming.  Colby conceded under questioning by Congressman Aspin that the NSA was engaged in the tapping of Americans’ phone calls.  This precipitated a remarkable move – drawing the head of the hitherto invisible NSA, Lew Allen Jr., before the committee.

Allen’s conduct provided the blueprint for subsequent NSA chiefs: mendacity under fire, hedging and hair splitting qualifications.  Yes, the agency was “legally” engaged in wiretapping American communications despite legal restrictions posed by such statutes as the 1934 Communications Act.  No, the it was not technically eavesdropping on domestic or overseas communications because its trawling program was not “targeted”.  Ever the NSA dilemma: caught between the vice of illegality and incompetence.

Dragging the NSA from the shadows of policy and cost proved a herculean task. If we are going to split hairs using the copybook of NSA directors, we might well argue that it is an unauthorised body, the vigilante on the bloc.  Pike’s efforts to get the NSA to produce its “charter” – the National Security Council Intelligence Directive No. 6 in August 1975 – showed that up all too well.  Even Washington’s politicians were not privy to the contents of the agency’s governing document.

The battle between Pike and Rogovin also proved savage. Words were concealed in various items for reasons of “security”.  Pike insisted on clawing them out; Rogovin on keeping them concealed.  What such encounters revealed was how poorly US intelligence had performed, rather than how secure it was keeping Washington.  Despite having the capabilities to eavesdrop on Egyptian communications, to take one specific example, US spy officials were incapable of determining the country’s plans for war.  Everyone else seemed to know.  Besides, both the Soviets and the Egyptians knew American eavesdropping capabilities.  They had nothing to worry about.

The Pike Committee findings on waste, hidden costs and unjustified secrecy were nerve racking for the political establishment, but not sufficiently weighty for a public that had been too absorbed with Nixon and Watergate. As Ames suggested, “Watergate was inspiring; the Pike Committee was a ‘bummer’ (in the parlance of their times).”

It made Pike a target of opprobrium.  Rogovin was incandescent. “Pike will pay for this, you wait and see – we’ll destroy him for this.”  And he, and various others, did.  The report was quashed in the House by a mere vote, leaving it to the mercy of selective publication.  (A full copy was later published in Britain.)  The Committee, along with staff, was tarnished with the brush of irresponsibility, and Pike with the mantel of a manic radical hostile to institutions.  This proved an odd outcome, especially for a solid conservative who had been a stickler for propriety.

Such is the fate of those who confront the self-absorbed, and absorbing tendencies of the national security state.  Revelations are firstly countered by denial, only to be qualified.  The public are reassured that fuss is unnecessary.  Overstepping might happen, but rarely.  Revenge eventually comes: in the form of stomping on the reformers.  The Pike formula may well find itself repeated regarding President Barack Obama’s NSA “reforms”. In fact, we are already seeing vestiges of that.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.