This week marks the 44th anniversary of the public debut of the Senate Watergate Committee. On May 17, 1973, the committee kicked off hearings that became must-see TV, broadcast live on the three networks in the afternoon and replayed at night on PBS.
“What did the president know, and when did he know it?” was the famous question posed by Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) early on in the Watergate hearings, a defining phrase still invoked today when a politician is caught in scandal.
Since those hearings, just about every congressional committee conducting a high-profile investigation has had to live up to the legacy of Baker and Sen. Sam Ervin (D-N.C.), the leaders of the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities. It’s an almost impossible standard to meet — and also one that often gets lost in myth rather than facts.
Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), the chairman and ranking minority party member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, are the latest to stand in the long shadows of the Watergate committee. They regularly face questions about why they aren’t moving faster to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign.
In fact, they’re moving more quickly than Ervin and Baker did 44 years ago. If it doesn’t seem that way, that’s got more to do with the insatiable appetites of social media and cable news than with reality.
Back in December, as revelations mounted about Russian hacking, there were bipartisan calls to sidestep the intelligence panel and create a select committee modeled on the one that Ervin and Baker led in the investigation of President Richard Nixon. After President Trump’s stunning dismissal Tuesday of James B. Comey as FBI director, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) reiterated his demand for a such a committee, contending that Burr and Warner were not able to meet the gravity of this moment.
Yet, when you talk to experts in congressional oversight, they have quite different advice for the Intelligence Committee: Slow down, hold on, don’t get tricked into rushing yourself just because we live in an era of instant gratification through social media.
“It’s a huge mistake to get going too soon,” said Loch Johnson, who served as a top adviser to what was known as the “Church Committee”, a special panel in 1975-1976 that investigated intelligence abuses and led to the creation of the Intelligence Committee.
He worries that Burr and Warner might be moving too quickly in the probe. “I was a little surprised Burr got his start off so quickly,” said Johnson, a distinguished professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia.
Despite the sometimes-carefree demeanor that Burr gives off, his panel is off to a fast start compared with other major congressional investigations.
Burr — who holds the same Senate seat once occupied by Ervin — has already led three public hearings focused largely on meddling by Russia. Committee members have reviewed thousands of pages of raw intelligence material, according to aides to Burr and Warner. Investigators have completed interviews with more than 30 individuals involved in the intelligence community’s analysis of Russian attempts to tip the election to Trump.
Members of the Trump campaign and transition team have been put on notice to deliver documents, and last week, the committee issued its first subpoena since 2005, for records from former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
The Watergate Committee was created in early February 1973, after Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), whose brother defeated Nixon in the 1960 presidential election, offered legislation to investigate what began as a mere break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel building.
It took 3 ½ months for Ervin and Baker to begin holding public hearings. They spent that time hiring their lead counsels, Samuel Dash and Fred Thompson, fully staffing up and conducting interviews. Baker didn’t utter his immortal “when did he know it” line until late June 1973.
And the committee didn’t issue a final report until June 27, 1974, more than two years after the DNC break-in.
The House investigation into Nixon also moved at a slower pace than today’s on-again-off-again-on-again probe by the House Intelligence Committee. Only after the “Saturday Night Massacre” — Nixon’s October 1973 firing of top Justice Department officials and the special prosecutor conducting the criminal investigation — did the House Judiciary Committee agree to begin hearings that would lead to its July 1974 votes to recommend impeachment of the president.
The committee investigating the CIA, led by Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) in the mid-1970s, took shape in January 1975 and didn’t hold a public hearing for seven months. Church put together a staff that pored over documents and interviewed witnesses in private.
“The hearing will be 10 times more authentic and informative if you’ve done your research ahead of time,” said Johnson, who has written more than 30 books on the CIA and national security. “Otherwise you won’t know what questions to ask.”
Those investigators, digging through unrelated documents, happened upon information about CIA-directed assassination attempts of foreign leaders, Johnson said. The implication is clear: If Burr and Warner rush to meet the demands of the 24/7 cable-news age, such evidence could be overlooked.
McCain took this long-game approach himself overseeing a corruption investigation involving lobbyists bilking tribal casino clients. A few days after The Washington Post broke the initial story in February 2004, McCain pushed the Senate’s Committee on Indian Affairs to launch an investigation. But the first public hearings came seven months later.
Now, however, Burr and Warner face a very different climate driven by social media. Even Trump took to Twitter recently to mock the Russia investigations as a “taxpayer funded charade.”
There’s always the risk that by moving deliberatively, Senate investigators will allow witnesses to conceal documents. But the Comey firing appeared to light a small fire under Burr, who spent the next several days defending the ousted FBI director, vowing to ramp up the investigation and issuing the panel’s first subpoena.
“We’re willing to go to whatever basket of tools we feel is necessary,” Burr told reporters Thursday.
And Warner defended questions about the “pace” because the committee is in the “uncharted territory” of prodding the intelligence community to share such critical information, which takes a lot of time.
Johnson approves of that sentiment. Getting it right often requires patience. He also noted that during the Church Committee’s dark period, when there were no cable news outlets or social media, those investigators faced some of the same pressures.
“ ‘What’s wrong with these guys?’ ” Johnson recalled thinking about one headline. “Even in 1975 we had our critics.”