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The Role Of Intelligence Committees


Back in the olden days, there was a pointedly bipartisan atmosphere on congressional intelligence committees. That's how Paul Pillar remembers it at least. The 28-year CIA veteran often presented briefings to the House Intelligence Committee in the 1980s. And he compares that different atmosphere with today's climate in the column for The National Interest. Mr. Pillar joins us in our studio.

Thanks so much for being with us.

PAUL PILLAR: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: First off, you've - I assume you've read the memo.


SIMON: Any reaction?

PILLAR: I don't think it really tells us much of anything beyond the motives of those who put the memo together and why they released it. So I think Mr. Elving's description earlier this morning of the memo is quite apt.

SIMON: Senator John McCain - nobody's pushover - said release of the memo only helps Vladimir Putin. What do you think?

PILLAR: Well, the - anytime you have a disclosure like this of something that was classified and it's disclosed without the review of the agencies that were originators of it, you have at least indirect damage - not that somebody is going to go out and get shot but rather it's going to discourage other potential sources of information - including intelligence sources - that it might be pertinent to what the Russians are doing, who are going to be discouraged, who are going to think twice, whether they come to one of the U.S. intelligence agencies and offer their support.

SIMON: I don't want to get sentimental. But in the past, there hasn't been this kind of hyperpartisanship?

PILLAR: Well, it's been a long progression, Scott. I mean, you referred back to the 1980s when, based on my experience, there was quite a bit of good bipartisanship. And I would say since the 1990s, about when Newt Gingrich declared political warfare, we've had an increase infecting of partisanship, even into the work of the two intelligence committees. So things have come up in the past. I mean, for example, the issue of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques - also known as torture - which had a partisan edge in that on the Senate side, you had a Democratic majority report and a competing Republican minority report. And then the CIA had its own response.

And, you know, one can argue about how effective this instance of dueling briefs might have been in illuminating that whole issue for the American public. But it certainly wasn't anything like what we've seen in the current instance where you have, to be quite frank, a blatant use of the House Intelligence Committee for the purpose of trying to pre-emptively discredit findings of the special counsel.

SIMON: But then - I'm glad you mentioned the disagreement between the two parties about - with the phrase was - what? - enhanced interrogation...

PILLAR: Right.

SIMON: ...Techniques. Because it is, among other things, the responsibility of Senate and House committees to oversee government action and to step in and make corrections and, for that matter, alert the public when they think intelligence agencies are going over the line, isn't it?

PILLAR: The House and Senate intelligence committees, which date from the 1970s after we had some scandals involving domestic surveillance, play a very important role in ensuring that the activities of U.S. intelligence agencies are consistent with the values of the American public. They, in essence, serve as surrogates for the American public since most of those activities, by their very nature, cannot be made public. So we have these selected members of Congress who have the security clearances, and they look at the classified information. And on behalf of you and me and the rest of the American citizenry, they stand in judgment over whether these activities are legitimate or not.

SIMON: I have to ask you, as an intelligence analyst - when the president says figure that out for yourself, do you read that as an invitation for, for example, Rod Rosenstein to resign or Christopher Wray, the head of the FBI, to resign? Or should they not?

PILLAR: I read that as the president has his gun sights aimed at Mr. Rosenstein among others.

SIMON: And Christopher Wray, perhaps, yeah?

PILLAR: Perhaps Christopher Wray - although, you know, given that he was Mr. Trump's own appointee to replace James Comey, that will be an interesting thing to play out. But I think we should note that Christopher Wray has taken a rather firm line on behalf of the FBI's interest and received a firm statement of support from the FBI Officers Association (ph).

SIMON: Paul Pillar, a CIA veteran, now a senior fellow at Georgetown.

Thanks for being with us.

PILLAR: It was my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.