RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The House Intelligence Committee is embroiled in a fight with the Trump administration, and the president's son, Donald Trump Jr., has now agreed to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Controversy has surrounded congressional oversight of the intelligence community since special committees were established to look into abuses way back in 1975. Here's former Senate chairman Frank Church.
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FRANK CHURCH: Now, why is this investigation important? I'll tell you why - because I don't want to see this country ever go across the bridge. I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America.
MARTIN: House and Senate intelligence committees - that is our subject this week for commentator Cokie Roberts. She joins us each week to talk about how government works. Hey, Cokie.
COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: So let's talk about this. Our first listener wants to know just the basics, what the committees are charged to do.
GWEN KELLEY: My name is Gwen Kelley. I'm from Metairie, La. And my question about the congressional intelligence committees is, what is the scope of their work? What type of information do they oversee?
ROBERTS: Boy, they oversee all the intelligence apparatus of the government. So that means the CIA, the FBI, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency - couple of agencies I didn't even know about, Rachel - the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and the...
ROBERTS: I know.
MARTIN: Who knew?
ROBERTS: And the National Reconnaissance Office, which is in charge of spy satellites. So it's a big job.
MARTIN: Yeah, lots to do.
MARTIN: So speaking of the basics, Cokie, I mean, how did these committees even come to be? That's what our next listener wants to know.
TIM JACKSON: My name is Tim Jackson. I am from Comstock Park, Mich. I would like to know, in what year was the first Congressional Intelligence Committee formed?
ROBERTS: In the Senate, in 1976. In the House, in 1977. They grew directly out of the investigations you talked about earlier. At the end of 1974, the New York Times had published reports of vast abuses by the CIA. And in the uproar that followed, both houses of Congress appointed special committees to investigate it. And they each issued reports the next year. They called for the establishment of permanent congressional committees. You know, what's striking about going back over those investigations, which of course were enormous news at the time...
ROBERTS: ...Is how little has changed. (Laughter) The House committee was wildly partisan, totally at war with the Ford administration, demanding documents, having fights. The Senate committee cooperated much more, both across party lines and with the administration, and in the end was considered more successful.
MARTIN: Oh, it's interesting, though, because so much of our political moment is exceptional. It's important to remember that not everything.
MARTIN: Some of it is just the same old, same old.
MARTIN: OK. We've got a couple of listeners here with similar questions about that question of success.
PATRICK BERG: Hi, this is Patrick Berg from Hansberg, Germany. My question is, looking back in history, how effective or successful have they been?
MILES SCALABRIN: My name is Miles Scalabrin from Peoria, Ariz. Has any committee produced actionable reports that resulted in significant rulings or legislation?
ROBERTS: Of course, it's hard to measure the success of these committees because so much is secret. But at least they're in a position to see what the taxpayers are spending on intelligence budgets. That's not hidden from elected representatives as it was in the past.
MARTIN: Commentator Cokie Roberts. And you can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and government work by tweeting us with the #askcokie. Cokie, thanks so much.
ROBERTS: Good to talk to you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.