In 1975, Congress established the first intelligence oversight committees. The Watergate break-in had prompted a constitutional crisis, and in the course of investigating Watergate, Congress realized that it had an urgent need to review classified documents and activities in order to serve as a check on a president who was willing to use the nation’s intelligence agencies to investigate his political rivals, to manipulate popular opinion, and—ironically—to assess whether the Russian government was fomenting civil and political unrest in the United States.
A president who is willing to bend national policy to serve his self-interests, and who has little regard for the law, has powerful tools of concealment at his disposal. The events of the past two weeks are again putting on full display the ways that classification policy and information-security systems can be abused to conceal records of wrongdoing and to extend the life span of malfeasance before it’s discovered. And once again, a great deal rides on whether Congress can summon the will to serve as a check on the executive.
In late September, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence released an unclassified complaint filed by an intelligence-community whistle-blower alleging that President Donald Trump was using his office to pressure foreign governments to interfere in U.S. elections. The charges themselves were explosive, and seem to have been confirmed in subsequent days, as Trump has publicly urged Ukraine and China—and by extension, every other world government—to dig up dirt on his political rivals. Yet it wasn’t just the top-level charges, as impeachment-worthy as they are, that caught the attention of former national-security officials. It was also the allegation that someone in the White House had moved call transcripts into a highly restricted server where records of Trump’s discussions with foreign leaders would be concealed.