- - Monday, June 26, 2017


This summer marks the 40th anniversary of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, one of the first achievements of Democratic House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill in his newly elected post in 1977. To be sure, the Senate had already established such a committee more than a year earlier. But the creation of both permanent organs should be seen against the background of temporary, controversial investigative efforts by Congress in the mid-1970s to keep abreast of what was right or good or wrong and bad in intelligence efforts involving the nation.

The irony of these milestones is that they represented a big break from the nation’s past. From earliest times, intelligence was pursued either by Congress or the president, mostly, the latter — about which the legislature had no review or input.

For example, during the Revolutionary War, there was no president for the colonies. The Continental Congress was both executive and legislature, and early on in the war it created secret committees that pursued intelligence-gathering on Britain. It used bribes, agents, codes, propaganda and the like against the mother country. It organized staff for that purpose, including the famous Thomas Paine, author of “Common Sense,” which helped to provoke the revolt. In 1777, Paine became secretary to the Committee on Foreign Affairs, which handled — and put a lid on — secret negotiations with France for assistance. Later on, Paine leaked all this in one of his pamphlets. Partisans who differed with Paine over other matters raised a furor. It was a “their word” against “Paine’s word” situation. Outnumbered, Paine became infamous and was forced to resign in 1779.

Intelligence-gathering was crucial — keeping tabs, for instance, on information from allies Spain and France, as well as in Britain where, it was rumored, King George III intended to employ German mercenaries in America.

George Washington as the first president under the Constitution set up a secret fund in the State Department for intelligence activities. Although it had a non-controversial title (Contingency Fund for the Conduct of Foreign Intercourse), it was big, amounting to 12 percent of the federal budget by 1792. The funds were used to foment rebellion in Spanish-Florida so as to make it eventually possible to relieve the Iberian nation of its problems by America’s acquisition. Only Washington had control over the monies — and Congress was left out of the reviewing loop.

Subsequent presidents, especially James Madison in the War of 1812 and Andrew Jackson in dealing with western expansion issues, employed similar strategies, but the chief executive who shut out congressional review until the post-World War period when the CIA came into focus was James K. Polk (1845-1849).

Polk was an ardent expansionist, absolutely intent on taking over western areas. Secret negotiations — along with intelligence gathering — were used to get the Brits to divide the Oregon Country at the 49th parallel, with the American half becoming the states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

Then the president tried the same tactics with Mexico in an effort to acquire New Mexico and California. Agents John Stockton and John Charles Fremont were paid secret dough to foment strife in Mexico, and a covert order went out to a naval unit to stay near the California coast in the event of war. Not surprisingly, Polk was successful in getting Congress to approve a war resolution, and the end result was a bumper crop of territory from Mexico,

Even before the Mexican War, however, the House of Representatives wanted the lowdown from Polk on Secretary of State Daniel Webster’s secret funds during his service under predecessor presidents William Henry Harrison and John Tyler. Polk’s answer would keep Congress at bay for almost a century:

“The experience of every nation on earth,” wrote Polk, “has demonstrated that emergencies may arise in which it becomes absolutely necessary for the public safety or the public good to make expenditures, the very subject of which would be defeated by publicity … In no nation is the application of such funds to be made public. In time of war or impending danger, the situation of the country will make it necessary to employ individuals for the purpose of obtaining or rendering other important services who could never be prevailed upon to act if they entertained the least apprehension that their names or their agency in any contingency be divulged.”

• Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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