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Church Committee’s Fading Legacy

Photo of Frank Church in congressional hearing. Holding gun.

BOISE — Forty years ago today, in a cramped room on Capitol Hill, Idaho Sen. Frank Church led a group that pored over many of the most highly classified documents of the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The room contained the staff and U.S. senators of the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, better known as the Church Committee. Church led the committee, which had unprecedented power to examine the country’s top intelligence agencies.

“It was the first open hearing into the role of a secret intelligence agency in a democracy,” said Tim Weiner, a former New York Times investigative journalist.

Weiner has won a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for his reporting on the intelligence community.

The Church Committee’s investigation revealed more about the secret, sometimes illegal, work of the nation’s top intelligence agencies than any comparable effort before or since. And it led to reforms meant to rein in the agencies and protect civil liberties, though many of those reforms were weakened in the years following the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

“I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision so that we never cross over that abyss,” Church said at the time on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“That is the abyss from which there is no return,” he said

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