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Seats on Intelligence Committee Give Maine's Two U.S. Senators Prominent Roles

FILE - Republican Sen. Susan Collins and  independent Sen. Angus King speak to reporters after King announced his endorsement in her bid for a fourth term, Friday, May 16, 2014, at the Margaret Chase Smith Library in Skowhegan, Maine.
AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File
Republican Sen. Susan Collins and independent Sen. Angus King speak to reporters after King announced his endorsement in her bid for a fourth term, Friday, May 16, 2014, at the Margaret Chase Smith Library in Skowhegan, Maine.

Whether it’s the resignation of the national security advisor, speculation about the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia, or President Trump’s unverified claim about wiretapping by former President Obama, news outlets often turn to Maine Senators Susan Collins and Angus King to weigh in. That’s because both sit on the powerful Intelligence Committee that’s privy to some of the nation’s deepest secrets.

Whenever Collins and King appear on national television to discuss the latest Russia controversy, they’re typically introduced as:

“Maine independent Sen. Angus King serves on the Intelligence and Armed Services Committees.” Or, “…and a colleague of Sen. Warner’s on the Intelligence Committee, Maine Sen. Susan Collins.”

The Senate Intelligence Committee, or as King says, “technically the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.”

It’s the committee charged with overseeing the country’s entire spying apparatus — that’s 17 different agencies including the CIA, the National Security Administration and the FBI. And the fact that King and Collins are on it? That’s unusual given there are only 15 members.

It also means Maine’s two senators are in the middle an investigation into Russia’s alleged meddling in the presidential election and Trump’s claim that President Obama tapped his phones.

Collins was asked about the allegation by CBS Face the Nation host John Dickerson on Sunday.

Dickerson: “Should he be talking about this on Twitter? Is this helpful?”

Collins: “It would be more helpful if he turned over to the Intelligence Committee any evidence that he has.”

And during an appearance last week on MSNBC, King used a Star Wars reference to explain Trump officials now debunked denials about their interactions with Russian officials.

“The denials remind me of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the first Star Wars,” King says. “Remember where he says, These aren’t the droids you’re looking for”?

But the national spotlight on both senators sometimes obscures an important fact: When it comes to Russian election tampering and other matters of national security, King and Collins already know a lot more than the rest of us. They just can’t talk about it. Not yet.

As part of the Intelligence Committee, King and Collins have the highest level security clearance. They receive briefings from high ranking intelligence officials twice a week. And the briefings are so secret that they take place inside a secure room inside the capital.

“It’s called a SCIF,” King says. SCIF stands for Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility.

“And it’s a place that cannot be penetrated by radiowaves. Everybody has to leave their electronic devices outside, members as well as staff,” King says.

When King and Collins were briefed on US interrogation methods a few years ago, they heard it in a SCIF. The information remained private for a long time before it was included in the Intelligence Committee’s 2013 torture report — a document that ultimately led to dramatic changes in U.S. interrogation practices, including torture.

The report underscores the members’ primary function.

“Those of us who have been named to the committee have such an important oversight function,” Collins says.}

Or, as King puts it.

“This is an important committee because nobody else is watching,” he says.

Nobody was watching America’s spies until about 40 years ago. What paved the way were the Watergate scandal and the Nixon administration’s directive to spy on Americans and domestic groups considered a threat to the country. Among those who were targeted? Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who received this anonymous letter in 1964 read aloud by attorney Frank Schwarz during hearings held by the Church Commission a decade later:

“King there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have 34 days to do it. This exact number has been selected for a specific reason. It has definite practical significance … You are done.”

Dr. King interpreted that letter, which was sent by the FBI, as an effort to get him to kill himself. And it was just one of more than 10,000 documents the Church Commission reviewed for over a year as probed the activities of the FBI, CIA and other spy agencies.

It was the Church Commission that created the special courts that authorize wiretaps — the kind of snooping Trump has alleged against Obama.

And it also created the Senate Intelligence Committee and its counterpart in the House that work in secret. Collins and King say there are practical reasons for this.

“What’s often most sensitive is not the information, but how we got it,” King says.

“Very highly classified information that could literally cause people to lose their lives if it were revealed,” Collins says.

Collins describes working on the committee as operating in a black box. She and King can’t respond to the latest bombshell news report even when they’d like nothing more than to share some facts.

“A version may not be true and yet I cannot say that. I cannot correct the record,” she says.

As for Russia, Collins can only say that the country’s cyber activities are malicious. She described its activities as attempts to sow seeds of doubt about the legitimacy of American elections and democracy, as well as that of Western European democracies.

She and King also both believe the investigation is so serious — and Americans are so concerned — that the Intelligence Committee should take the rare step of holding some of its hearings in public.

In the meantime, the confidential briefings will continue, as will the investigation into Russian meddling. Collins says she’s heading to the CIA next week to review the first batch of documents.