The new Republican House Majority, led by Speaker Kevin McCarthy, faces continued controversy after a tumultuous January that saw Democratic legislator Ilhan Omar kicked off of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and her colleagues Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell ejected from the House Intelligence Committee. On this week’s episode of Now & Then, “Congressional Committees…and Power,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman discussed the partisan history of congressional committees, from Jeffersonian suspicion toward committees to the Watergate excesses that sparked the creation of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees. One episode in the birth of the House Intelligence Committee – a mid-1970s stand-off between progressive and centrist Democrats over the shape of the new panel – illustrates the sensitive nature of committees in American political life.
In the early 1970s, center-Left Michigan Democrat Lucien Nedzi served as Chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Intelligence. Before the formation of the House Permanent Select Committee, Nedzi’s perch was the one of the most vaunted congressional positions in Washington. Nedzi was a lawyer from Wayne County. He was the son of working-class Polish immigrants and represented a hodge-podge of very wealthy and very poor Detroit suburbs.
Nedzi had been a combat infantryman in the Philippines in World War II, but was a dove on the Vietnam War, opposed the expensive B-1 bomber, and was an early believer in the severity of the Watergate scandal. Nedzi had occasionally clashed with the intelligence community. In March 1973, as Watergate was deepening, Nedzi accused the White House of coordinating with global telephone conglomerate ITT to unleash economic chaos in Chile, where right-wing, America-friendly dictator Augusto Pinochet was in the process of deposing Socialist President Salvador Allende.
Yet Nedzi was, at heart, an institutionalist and a believer in the necessity for military intelligence. He was also willing to criticize more aggressively progressive Democratic colleagues. In February 1974, for example, Nedzi, following an investigation, pushed back on claims that the CIA may have destroyed Watergate-related tapes, arguing that the accusations were being pushed by irresponsible colleagues. “Someone is trying to blow smoke around,” Nedzi told the press.
Nedzi’s most outspokenly anti-CIA House colleague was the outspokenly antiwar Democratic Massachusetts Representative Michael Harrington, who represented a district encompassing Salem. Harrington was from a vaunted family – his father Joe had served as a state senator and as Salem’s mayor. Yet there was also an insurgent quality to Harrington’s rise; his district had been solidly Republican since the early 1800s, and he beat GOP golden boy William Saltonstall – the son of powerful and wealthy U.S. Senator Leverett Saltonstall – to secure his seat in 1969.
Once in office, Harrington quickly distinguished himself for public moves against the establishment. In May 1971, he was the sole House member who voted against a resolution wishing former President Harry Truman a happy birthday. Harrington argued he was protesting frivolous resolutions. In late 1973, he was one of the few legislators to actively oppose Gerald Ford’s vice presidential nomination.
Eventual House Speaker Tip O’Neill, in the early 1970s already a very powerful Massachusetts Representative and a longtime friend of Harrington’s father, admitted to the New York Times that Michael was nothing like his outgoing dad: “Joe Harrington was a great orator. One of the great storytellers of all time. That’s not Michael. Joe was extremely affable and a mixer. Mike is not.”
The younger Harrington soldiered on, however, and managed to get plum committee posts on the larger House Armed Services Committee and on the Foreign Affairs Committee, where he served on the Subcommittee for Inter-American Affairs. From this vantage, Harrington in 1973 observed the Chilean coup that brought Pinochet to power. He quickly began asking questions.
In April 1974, Harrington urged Nedzi to use the Armed Services Intelligence Subcommittee – of which Harrington, while part of the parent Committee, was not a member – to interview CIA Director William Colby behind closed doors about the CIA’s role in the coup.
After the interview, in early June 1974, Harrington lobbied the Subcommittee to let him see the transcript of Colby’s closed-door testimony, but agreed not to share the contents with the press or with his fellow legislators. Harrington was shocked by Colby’s admissions that the U.S. had secretly spent millions in taxpayer dollars to sabotage Allende and to pave the way for the brutal Pinochet.
Colby also detailed that the CIA had first attempted to sink Allende way back in 1964, when the Socialist first ran for president. And Colby said that the 40 Committee, a secretive executive branch intelligence panel headed by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, had okayed the CIA’s later actions against Allende. The money sent during the 1970-1973 period largely went toward anti-Allende candidates and newspapers and toward a failed plan to bribe the Chilean congress to vote against Allende in the run-off election that led to his victory.
Harrington confronted Nedzi about Colby’s testimony. “He replied with a philosophical shrug,” Harrington reflected in an essay in The New Republic the following year. “He had taken the testimony as I had asked – what else was one to do?”
Several weeks later, in mid-July 1974, Harrington wrote a seven-page summary of Colby’s Chile admissions to the Chair of the full House Armed Services Committee, Pennsylvania Democrat Thomas Morgan, and to long-time Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman J. William Fulbright. He also talked about Colby’s testimony with several other legislators who were focused on the Chile controversy.
In addition, Harrington told Larry Stern, a Washington Post editor and Harrington confidante, about the Colby transcript, although Harrington did not provide the same degree of detail as he did in the letter to Morgan and Fulbright. Stern counseled Harrington, but made no move to publish the information.
In early September, Harrington received a call from investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, who is currently in the news for a much-debated piece claiming that U.S. forces blew up the Nord Stream pipelines last year. Hersh, who was then at the New York Times, had acquired a copy of Harrington’s letter and alerted Harrington of his plan to publish. On September 8th, 1974, Hersh published a front-page article composed of information from the Harrington letter and titled, “C.I.A. Chief Tells House of $8-Million Campaign Against Allende in ’70-73.”
On September 25th, 1974, Nedzi’s Subcommittee called Harrington to testify about the leak. Harrington used the opportunity to criticize Colby’s tone in the testimony, arguing that the CIA Director spoke “with almost a sense of inferred pride useful as an insight into both the main witness, Mr. Colby, but also an insight into the method of operation that the CIA employed in this insistence.”
During the hearing, Harrington got into an argument with Committee member Bob Wilson, a California Republican and administration ally, after he implied that British Revolutionary War spy Benedict Arnold also thought he was acting in his nation’s best interests.
“I think you really damaged this country tremendously by violating a rule of the House,” Wilson chided. “You don’t think so, but I do. I am sure Benedict Arnold didn’t think so either.”
“They are not remotely alike and the comparison I would quarrel up and down with,” Harrington retorted.
As Congress reconvened in January 1975, moves to form permanent committees to investigate the CIA grew. In the Senate, Idaho Democratic Senator Frank Church started an investigation into intelligence agencies. Vice President Nelson Rockefeller led an inquiry out of the White House into domestic CIA excesses.
And in the House, Nedzi – given his role on the Armed Services Intelligence Subcommittee – led the effort to set up a House Committee to investigate the intelligence agencies. Nedzi proposed a ten-member committee, with seven Democrats and three Republicans. He also announced that he planned to hold further hearings into Harrington’s role in the Colby testimony leak.
Tensions were still high between Nedzi and Harrington. As the committee formed, Harrington called Nedzi and other leaders in past investigative efforts “willing patsies” for the CIA and argued that their oversight function was a “fictional cover” for extralegal actions abroad.
While Nedzi was still pushing for an investigation into Harrington, he ended up in an extremely awkward spot. On February 19th, 1975, the House formally voted along party lines to create the Select Committee on Intelligence – and House Speaker Carl Albert announced that Nedzi would be chair and Harrington would be a member. Largely due to Tip O’Neill’s loyalty to the Harrington family and resultant support for Harrington’s inclusion, the adversaries, Nedzi and Harrington, had to dig into the CIA’s misdeeds together.
Over the next three months, the new committee struggled to get off the ground, debating extensively who to appoint as staff director to lead their $750,000 inquiry. Harrington pushed for former LBJ-era Attorney General and anti-war activist Ramsey Clark, while Nedzi finally successfully pushed through a 30-year-old Republican lawyer named A. Searle Field in May 1975. Harrington called Field “someone who meets minimal standards” for the role.
Just as Nedzi’s dysfunctional committee was beginning to get to work, a bombshell dropped: the New York Times, citing authoritative but anonymous sources, revealed that Nedzi, while chairing the Armed Services Intelligence Subcommittee the previous year, had received additional briefings on CIA assassination plots of foreign leaders and illegal domestic surveillance and had not disclosed his knowledge of the intel to other committee members.
Nedzi argued that the revelations had not appeared pressing: “I think all the things we learned of were long past history and we received assurances that these things no longer took place.”
Harrington, meanwhile, argued that Nedzi’s silent knowledge constituted “a deliberate effort to mislead us.” Within days, further leaks revealed that Nedzi had been briefed on assassination schemes against South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem and – somewhat bizarrely – French President Charles de Gaulle.
Nedzi recognized that his position as chief House investigator of the CIA was now in a tenuous state and attempted a compromise: He appointed Ohio Representative James V. Stanton to chair a Subcommittee that would handle the CIA investigation, while Nedzi would look into other agencies and retain control over the larger Committee. Nedzi, however, barred Dellums and Harrington from the new Subcommittee. In turn, the fiery Democrats on the larger Committee voted to shut down the new proposal.
On the morning of June 12th, 1975, Nedzi sent in his resignation from the House Intelligence Committee. The blow-up took place as CIA Director Colby was preparing to testify before the Committee. Colby showed up at the hearing room only to find the proceedings suspended.
The three Republican members had boycotted Colby’s appearance, seeing Nedzi’s resignation as his caving to what they viewed as Harrington’s extremism. One of them, Illinois’ Robert McClory, charged that Harrington “would be willing to see a destruction of the CIA, would like to see all the secret information laid bare.”
Many congressmen of both parties called for Harrington to also resign. Harrington was defiant: “They couldn’t get me off that committee with a howitzer to my head.”
On June 16th, the House voted to reject Nedzi’s resignation by a convincing majority. Powerful Kansas Democrat Richard Bolling, who had helped to wrench control of Civil Rights legislation from Southern Democrats a decade earlier, was sensitive to the damage to the Democratic Party inherent in the Nedzi-Harrington ideological feud. “If we do not vote to reject this resignation, we will have shown that we have resorted to cannibalism,” Bolling said on the floor shortly before the vote.
But Nedzi was determined to end his tenure chairing the Committee. “Having been raised in the hard knocks of Detroit area life, I surely know the difference between a welcome mat and a doormat,” he told the House. He added to the press, “I was unable to operate. I was left with a gavel and a title.”
A month after Nedzi’s dramatic departure, on July 17th, 1975, the House voted to replace the Committee altogether. New York Democratic Representative Otis Pike would lead a reconstituted group, with neither Nedzi nor Harrington included, despite a spirited effort by progressive New York Representative Bella Abzug to keep Harrington aboard.
The Pike Committee would run into its own series of leaks and controversies, but the internecine struggle between Nedzi and Harrington was over. Neither of the legislators ever faced formal investigation for their disclosures or non-disclosures, and the tumult of their failed initial House Intelligence Committee faded into obscurity. Now, as the Intelligence Committee reels amid partisan bickering and exclusion, the panel’s tense origin story seems to be playing out anew.
For more on the role of congressional committees in the 1970s reckoning over intelligence agencies, read Kathryn S. Olmsted’s 1996 Challenging the Secret Government: The Post-Watergate Investigations of the CIA and FBI.
And head to the Twitter account of Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.
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