6 Famous Congressional Investigations

Introduction

Find out the first-ever congressional investigation and other probes into organized crime, illegal spying and a famous tragedy at sea.

Delving into an Early Army Disaster

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On November 4, 1791, some 900 U.S. army troops under the command of Gen. Arthur St. Clair, a Revolutionary War veteran, were killed or wounded in a surprise attack by Native American warriors on the Ohio frontier. The following year, in what was the new nation’s first congressional investigation, a House committee was formed to look into the debacle, which became known as St. Clair’s Defeat. As part of the investigation, the committee asked President George Washington for paperwork pertaining to his administration’s management of the failed expedition. The president questioned his cabinet about whether he had the right to refuse to hand over the information, and they advised him to submit the documents that “the public good would permit and ought to refuse those the disclosure of which would injure the public,” thereby establishing the principle of executive privilege. (Washington opted to give Congress the documents they requested.) When the investigation wrapped up, the committee placed much of the blame on the War and Treasury departments and exonerated St. Clair.

Investigating a Famous Shipwreck

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On April 15, 1912, more than 1,500 people aboard the Titanic perished after it hit an iceberg and sank in the North Atlantic. The Senate quickly formed a special subcommittee and subpoenaed surviving members of the Titanic crew, along with the chairman of the company that owned the ship, J. Bruce Ismay (who was aboard the doomed ocean liner but escaped on a lifeboat), before they could return to England. The hearings began on April 19 at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, with Ismay the first of 82 witnesses called during the course of investigation, which lasted into late May. (The disaster hit close to home for two members of Congress: Sen. Benjamin Guggenheim lost a brother when the ship went down and Rep. James Anthony Hughes lost his son-in-law.) As a result of the investigation, Congress enacted various maritime-safety regulations. The 1997 movie “Titanic” generated such intense interest in the ship’s sinking that the following year a book publisher issued a reprint of the transcripts of the 1912 congressional hearings in their entirety.

Bringing Down a Cabinet Member for Bribery

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In 1923, the Senate launched an investigation into the Teapot Dome scandal, which involved charges that Secretary of the Interior Albert Bacon Fall had secretly leased oil reserves on federally owned lands to two private oil companies in exchange for bribes. Fall was a U.S. senator from New Mexico when his friend President Warren Harding made him interior secretary in 1921. Afterward, Fall leased the Teapot Dome oilfield in Wyoming, along with oil reserves in California, without seeking competitive bids. President Harding died suddenly in August 1923 before the scandal and investigation fully played out; however, his reputation was tarnished by his interior secretary’s actions. In 1929, Fall was convicted of accepting a bribe and sentenced to a year behind bars. He had the dubious distinction of being the first U.S. citizen convicted of a crime committed while serving in the presidential Cabinet. The scandal led to important Supreme Court rulings in the 1920s that recognized the substantial power of Congressional investigative committees.

Fighting Waste in War Production

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In early 1941, with World War II underway in Europe and America beefing up its national defense operations, Harry Truman, a senator and former small-business owner from Missouri, pushed for the formation of a congressional committee to investigate favoritism in how defense contracts were awarded. Formed that year, Truman’s committee found numerous instances of waste and corruption in defense manufacturing and spending. The committee’s efforts saved taxpayers billions of dollars, curbed graft and raised Truman’s national profile. When President Franklin Roosevelt ran for a fourth term in 1944, Truman was selected as his running mate, replacing Vice President Henry Wallace on the ticket. Less than three months after being sworn as veep in January 1945, Truman ascended to the White House when FDR died. Truman left the committee in 1944 when he was running for vice president, but the group continued its work. (Howard Hughes was called to testify about the use of government money to develop his “flying boat,” the Spruce Goose, which was intended for use in the war but instead made one brief test flight in 1947.) The committee officially disbanded in 1948.

Taking on Gangsters While the Nation Tuned in

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In the early 1950s, growing concerns about the rise of organized crime in the U.S. sparked a Senate investigation that had millions of people glued to their TVs. Over the course of the inquiry, from 1950 to 1951, committee members, led by Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, visited 14 U.S. cities, interviewed hundreds of witnesses and uncovered evidence of links between gangsters and corrupt public officials. At a time when TV was rapidly gaining popularity, committee hearings were broadcast live and featured testimony from such memorable figures as mob boss Frank Costello and gangster Bugsy Siegel’s ex-girlfriend Virginia Hill. The investigation made Kefauver nationally famous and earned him the admiration of citizens across the country. (He made an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1952 and four years later was the running mate of presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson, who lost to President Dwight Eisenhower.) While the high-profile inquiry boosted Americans’ awareness about organized crime, it resulted in little in the way of actual crime-related legislation.

Uncovering Illegal Spying on Americans

(Original Caption) Washington, D. C.: Close up of Senator Frank Church during a session of the Senate Intelligence Committee on the CIA and deadly toxin stocks.
(Original Caption) Washington, D. C.: Close up of Senator Frank Church during a session of the Senate Intelligence Committee on the CIA and deadly toxin stocks.

From 1975 to 1976, prompted by news reports that the CIA conducted a massive, illegal surveillance operation against anti-war activists and other dissident Americans, a Senate committee looked into allegations of intelligence-gathering abuses by the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency (NSA) and Internal Revenue Service. Headed by Sen. Frank Church of Idaho, the sweeping investigation revealed a range of abuses carried out by intelligence agencies, including plotting to assassinate foreign leaders; illegally monitoring Americans’ mail and telegrams; trying to blackmail Martin Luther King Jr. into committing suicide and, in violation of a presidential order, stockpiling deadly shellfish toxin and cobra venom. The committee’s findings led to such reforms as the creation of the court formed under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

Article Details:

6 Famous Congressional Investigations

  • Author

    Elizabeth Nix

  • Website Name

    History.com

  • Year Published

    2017

  • Title

    6 Famous Congressional Investigations

  • URL

    http://www.history.com/news/history-lists/6-famous-congressional-investigations

  • Access Date

    October 18, 2017

  • Publisher

    A+E Networks