Last week’s release of the now infamous Nunes Memo, named for House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, has simultaneously been hailed as both presidential vindication and a “nothing burger.” In fact, it is neither. Yet the heavily politicized document and its concomitant hashtag threaten the very framework of intelligence sharing and oversight.
Agencies are naturally reluctant to share classified documents too widely, especially when sensitive information is making its way into the press more freely than ever. For effective oversight, the intelligence community needs to be able to trust its supervising committees on the Hill. Without trust, agencies may choose not to cooperate and true oversight vanishes.
This is not idle speculation. A look at the history of intelligence oversight, particularly at the creation of permanent congressional committees for this purpose, offers insight into the trials ahead.
In the 1970s, the House and the Senate each held investigations into abuses like the FBI’s COINTELPRO and the CIA’s Operation CHAOS. The House committee was led (after some political musical chairs) by Rep. Otis Pike, and the Senate committee by Sen. Frank Church. According to A Season of Inquiry Revisited, by Univ. of Georgia professor Dr. Loch Johnson, the Senate committee negotiated with the White House about which documents could be shared with the public and which were too sensitive to show anyone outside the committee. Johnson, who served as Church’s assistant, said tensions ran high, but the process allowed the committee to be effective.
In contrast was the House’s Pike Committee. They badgered and berated the agencies, demanding they turn over all documents requested and giving no assurances on how the information would be handled. Moreover, the Pike Committee cemented its antagonistic relationship with the executive branch by declassifying select portions of intelligence documents on its own, kicking off a constitutional crisis in the process. After that, the administration and intelligence agencies were even less willing to share information with the House.
Their mutual animosity culminated in a Pike Committee report that some felt gave an overly critical, unbalanced view of the intelligence community. On Feb. 10, 1976, the House voted against releasing the final report, and within 24 hours it was leaked to the press in full.
Although that episode was not a fiasco borne of partisan cherry-picking, it shows how conflict between the president and the legislature hamstrings oversight committees in the long run.
The importance of this cannot be overstated. Presidents from Roosevelt to Nixon used the FBI for political intelligence. While this may have been to different degrees (and excluded President Eisenhower), the fact is such actions were fostered by a lack accountability from outside the executive branch.
Today’s intelligence committees are supposed to prevent that. When politicians – much less committee chairmen – come out with unsubstantiated claims that the FBI is abusing its power to support a political candidate, they erode the credibility of the committees in the eyes of agents, who need to trust that their counterparts on the Hill will not politicize their hard work.
Intelligence experts, former officers, and politicians of both parties have labeled the memo released by Chairman Nunes as deceptive. When confronted about White House input, Nunes’ attempted legerdemain failed to convince anyone that the memo was a product of the committee alone.
Yet in this wilderness of political mirrors, one thing is clear: the allegations in this memo impugn the reputation of the intelligence community and erode Congress’ ability to perform effective oversight.