The Extraordinary Otis Pike
These days it’s the scandal involving widespread surveillance by the National Security Administration. Four decades ago it was the investigation of U.S. intelligence agency abuses by a committee chaired by Congressman Otis G. Pike. The panel’s report, revealing a pattern similar in matters of arrogance and deception to the disclosures in recent times, was suppressedscandalouslyby the full House of Representatives.
Pike, who died last week at 92, was the greatest member of Congress from Long Island I have known in 52 years as a journalist based on the island. He was simply extraordinary.
He was able to win, over and over again as a Democrat in a district far more Republican than it is now. His communications to constituents were a wondera constant flow of personal letters. As a speaker he was magnificenteloquent and what a sense of humor! Indeed, each campaign he would write and sing a funny song, accompanying himself on a ukulele or banjo, about his opponent. He worked tirelessly and creatively for his eastern Long Island district.
With his top political lieutenants, attorney Aaron Donner and educator Joseph Quinn, and his dynamic wife Doris, and his many supporters including those in Republicans for Pike, he was a trusted, unique governmental institution on Long Island.
And he was a man of complete integrity. That, indeed, was why, after 18 years, Pike decided to close his career in the House of Representatives.
In 1975, as issues about global U.S. intelligence activities began to surface, Pike became chair of the House Special Select Committee on Intelligence. A U.S. Marine dive bomber and night fighter pilot in the Pacific during World War II, who with the war’s end went to Princeton and became a lawyer, he embarked with his committee, Donner its chief counsel, into an investigation of the assassinations and coups in which the Central Intelligence Agency was involved. His panel found systematic, unchecked and huge financial pay-offs by the CIA to figures around the world. And, yes, it found illegal surveillance.
On the Central Intelligence Agency’s website today is an essay by a CIA historian, Gerald K. Haines, which at its top asserts how “the Pike Committee set about examining the CIA’s effectiveness and costs to taxpayers. Unfortunately, Pike, the committee, and its staff never developed a cooperative working relationship with the Agency…”
A “cooperative working relationship” with the CIA? Pike’s committee was engaged in a hard-hitting investigation, a probe by the legislative branch of government, into wrongdoing by the executive branch. It was not, in examining the activities of the CIA and the rest of what historian Haines terms the “Intelligence Community,” interested in allying with and being bamboozled by them.
To make matters worse, leading components of the media turned away from what the Pike Committee was doing. Pike told me how James “Scotty” Reston, the powerful columnist and former executive editor of The New York Times, telephoned him to complain: “What are you guys doing down there?” The Times and other major media began focusing on the counterpart and less aggressive Senate committee on intelligence chaired by Senator Frank Church of Idaho.
Then, in 1976, even though a majority of representatives on the Pike Committee voted to release its report, the full House balloted 246-to-124 not to release it.
What an attempted cover-up! Fortunately, the report was leaked to CBS reporter Daniel Schorr who provided it to The Village Voice which ran it in full.
I still vividly recall sitting with Pike and talking, over drinks in a tavern in his hometown of Riverhead, about the situation. He had done what needed to be doneand then came the suppression. He thought, considering what he experienced, that he might be more effective as a journalist rather than a congressman in getting truth out.
I knew Otis as a reporter and columnist for the daily Long Island Press. Dave Starr, the editor of The Press and national editor of the Newhouse newspaper chain, always thought the world of Pike. Starr and Pike made an arrangement under which Pike would write a column distributed by the Newhouse News Service. Pike didn’t run for re-election for the House of Representativesand starting in 1979, for the next 20 years, he was a nationally syndicated columnist.
His columns were as brilliant as the speeches he gave as a congressman. They were full of honesty, humor and wisdom, same as the man.
Starr, still with Newhouse Newspapers, commented last week on Pike’s death: “The country has lost a great thinker, a mover and shaker, and a patriot.” Yes.
Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College of New York, is the author of the book, The Wrong Stuff: The Space’s Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet. Grossman is an associate of the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion.