RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The intelligence committees in Congress deal with some of the country's most sensitive secrets, and they're expected to place national security above partisan politics. Yet the House Intelligence Committee is engaged in a bitter free-for-all over competing memos about the Russia investigation. NPR's Greg Myre looks at how it got to this point.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: In 1975, Idaho Senator Frank Church presided over a landmark investigation of U.S. intelligence agencies. As it opened, he signaled what was to come.
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FRANK CHURCH: Such is the government's potential for monitoring any telephone conversation, any telegram, any unguarded conversation. There would, in a word, be no place left to hide.
MYRE: Decades of government secrets then came pouring out - how the CIA plotted to kill foreign leaders, the FBI and the military spied on U.S. citizens, the National Security Agency collected telephone data on Americans, private mail was systematically opened.
LOCH JOHNSON: To our astonishment, all kinds of things came crawling out from under the rocks.
MYRE: That's Loch Johnson, then a top assistant to Church. The upshot of those hearings was the creation of the Senate and the House Intelligence Committees. For the first time, intelligence agencies would face real scrutiny, notes Johnson, now a University of Georgia professor and the author of the new book "Spy Watching: Intelligence Accountability In The United States."
JOHNSON: We were optimistic that these panels were, first, necessary and, second, were going to work well. And after a while, there was quite a spirit of bipartisanship.
MYRE: In the four decades since, these committees have sometimes worked as planned and sometimes not.
JOHN PRADOS: It has been a constant kind of pendulum swing in terms of enforcing oversight.
MYRE: John Prados is at the National Security Archive, a Washington group that studies the intelligence community. He says these committees have at times exercised real power.
PRADOS: They were able to overturn three successive Clinton nominations to become the head of the CIA because of objections that were put by the Senate Intelligence Committee.
MYRE: Yet even when Republicans and Democrats work together, they can face serious pushback from the intelligence agencies. Johnson recalls a dinner with William Casey, the CIA director under President Ronald Reagan. He asked the notoriously gruff Casey what role Congress should play.
JOHNSON: He used some very naughty words but in essence said the job of Congress is to stay out of my way.
MYRE: Casey was not alone. A recurring grievance in the intelligence community is that both parties freely leak classified material. Today's multisided battle involves Republicans, Democrats, the intelligence community and the White House. In the House Intelligence Committee, Republicans, led by Devin Nunes of California, have released a memo accusing the FBI of abuses in the Russia investigation. The FBI has strongly objected. Democrats have countered with their own memo about the investigation, though President Trump has so far blocked its release. Here's Johnson again.
JOHNSON: Honestly, it's rather sad for me to see what's happened with the House Intelligence Committee.
MYRE: Still, he says the Senate committee has carried out its Russia investigation in a bipartisan spirit. Congress has the tools, Johnson says, and it's up to the members whether they do the job that Frank Church and his committee intended.
Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington.
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