Mr. Lee Lacy is a retired U.S. Army Reserve Lieutenant Colonel and serves as an Assistant Professor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He is a graduate of the University of Arkansas and holds a master’s degree from Webster University.
For many decades the government of the United States regularly conducted surveillance operations against its citizens. It was commonplace for the federal government to tap telephones, open mail, and break into private residences and offices of citizens who fell into disfavor with the government, law enforcement, a bureaucrat or political official. Although there is evidence, in varying degrees, of eavesdropping against citizens since the founding of the nation, eavesdropping intensified during World I and gradually increased in the period from 1918 to 1972. Illegal surveillance operations are associated with the presidential administration of Richard M. Nixon (1969 -1974); but, in reality, covert domestic activities directed against citizens was prevalent among all presidents of the time, from President Woodrow Wilson to President Nixon. Following World War I social turmoil took hold in the West, motivated by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. These events ushered in the First Red Scare, where anarchists and revolutionaries frightened the American public and prompted action by the government. Later, in the 1930s, the rise of National Socialism in Germany, and fascism in Italy and Japan, encouraged government action against real and perceived enemies of democracy. Following World War II, the Second Red Scare gained a firm foothold when U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy took advantage of public anxiety in the early years of the Cold War. Finally, the turbulent times of the 1960s, in the era of the Vietnam War and the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, surreptitious activities of the federal government, against its citizens, intensified. Amidst the social unrest, the federal government stepped up its activities to counter anti-war protestors, scrutinize civil rights leaders, defeat domestic terrorism and suppress political dissent. It was near the end of the Vietnam War, the U.S. government evolved from a position of routinely and illegally surveilling its citizens to a policy where surveillance became an exception; as permitted by law and with real oversight. This profound change was greatly influenced by the creation and efforts of the bi-partisan United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, commonly known as the Church Committee.
Setting the stage for the Church Committee was an explosive newspaper expose written by The New York Times investigative reporter, Seymour Hersh, in December 1974. Hersh led with this dramatic sentence “The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), directly violating its charter, conducted a massive, illegal domestic intelligence operation during the Nixon Administration against the antiwar movement and other dissident groups…” The story detailed abuses starting at the founding of the CIA in 1947, through the Cold War, into U.S. involvement in Vietnam and finally the Watergate political scandal.
The article itself became a sensation and caught the attention of Frank Church, a Democrat representing Idaho in the U.S. Senate. Church was wary of the Intelligence Community (IC), the collection of intelligence agencies throughout the government, often known by their three letter monikers. Church, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer, was especially critical of the CIA for being too focused on the Cold War and its undue influence in the media. Moreover, Church was incensed with the CIA’s involvement in the 1973 coup in Chile, where a democratically elected government was overthrown. This position often put Senator Church at odds with his own party, especially with Senate stalwarts, J. William Fulbright and John Stennis. The conventional wisdom in both political parties was to exercise little oversight of CIA operations. In the words of Senator Leverett Saltonstall “It’s better for gentlemen not to know what’s going on.”
The “not to know” attitude, was exemplified by the burglary of the Beverly Hills, California offices of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, in September 1971. Ellsberg, a former Department of Defense analyst, was the source of a leaked classified study on the Vietnam War, which became known as “The Pentagon Papers.” The Nixon White House wanted to discredit Ellsberg and sought Ellsberg’s personal medical files to do so. According to Nixon White House aide, Egil Krogh, “President Nixon had told me he viewed the leak as a matter of critical importance to national security. He ordered me and the others, a group that would come to be called the “plumbers,” to find out how the leak had happened and keep it from happening again.” Nixon admitted to seeking information about Ellsberg’s associates and motives in the interest of national security, but said he did not authorize the burglary or anything illegal. Nixon accepted responsibility for the actions of the burglars, despite his lack of knowledge of the incident. Official responsibility or not, the break-ins peaked the next year, with the most renowned crime of the Vietnam era; the burglary of the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate office complex, on 17 June 1972. This infamous burglary set into motion a series of events which, eventually, led to the resignation of President Nixon in August 1974; thus, elevating Vice-President Gerald R. Ford, who assumed the presidency and all of its lingering issues. As the country reeled from Watergate, the Vietnam War began to wind down and the country settled into a new era—a period President Ford, later, called “a time to heal.”
Warrantless searches were supposed to come to a halt in June 1972 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the federal government’s assertion that warrantless wiretapping of citizens was just and legal. In the domestic turmoil of the Vietnam War, several radical groups emerged on the political left. One movement was the White Panther Party, accused of criminal activity, namely conspiracy to destroy government property. At trial, the defense demanded electronic surveillance records, which the federal government refused on the grounds of national security. Eventually, the case made its way through the federal courts; and finally, to an appellate court. The appellate court ruled the federal government must hand over all illegally intercepted communications. The U.S. Justice Department appealed and the case was referred to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court upheld the lower court ruling and stated warrantless electronic surveillance was in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. A precedent was established, requiring law enforcement to obtain a warrant to conduct electronic surveillance in cases involving domestic security. While this decision did not, initially, send shockwaves in 1972, it certainly had greater meaning in the aftermath of Watergate as details of domestic spying began to emerge. The Church Committee certainly illuminated this issue, starting in 1975.
Flagrant violations of the law and abuse of the Fourth Amendment opened the door for Congress to establish meaningful oversight of the IC. Senator Frank Church, with ambitions to become President of the United States, jumped at the chance to chair a committee investigating these violations. Church was motivated by idealism which sought to balance U.S. nationalism with civil liberties. Church lived by taking chances, whether it was overcoming cancer or winning multiple Senate terms in conservative Idaho; self-proclaimed liberal Frank Church stood up to conventional wisdom. Church was not the first choice for the job. Majority Leader, Senator Mike Mansfield, reportedly, wanted Senator Philip Hart, to take the job. Hart, known as “The Conscience of the Senate” was in ill health, so Church was eventually given the chairmanship. Senator John Tower was selected as the ranking Republican, and at the request of Church, was made the Committee’s Vice-Chairman. The remaining committee members—nine in all, were carefully selected by Senate leadership in order have a balance of political viewpoints. Senator Mansfield did not want the proceedings to become a “television extravaganza.” No doubt, the experience from Watergate, fresh in everyone’s mind, was an open wound. When Seymour Hersh’s original story broke, President Ford, in office barely 120 days. Ford openly worried about possible legislative overreaction to the issue. He was concerned the public would see the White House as weak. Furthermore, Ford was advised to get in front of “band-wagon” efforts to pile on investigation, thus weakening the IC. The White House felt Church was overly outspoken on issues he championed and feared this would generate headlines for him. To mitigate the anticipated reaction, Ford created The Rockefeller Commission, to specifically examine CIA domestic activities. In appointing Vice President Nelson Rockefeller to lead the panel, Ford expressed the need for intelligence activities to be consistent with security requirements; while protecting democratic institutions and fundamental freedoms.A test of Ford’s patience with this balance came when the The New York Times published an article in May 1975 detailing how U.S. submarines operated clandestinely against the Soviet Union. Ford was so upset with this revelation he considered criminal charges against the newspaper. Although commonplace in the today’s media, publishing classified material was extremely controversial in 1975 and had a chilling effect on the IC. In the end, it was decided the Times revelations might help the Ford Administration in its efforts to curtail the Church Committee and limit how it might potentially harm national security.
In January 1975 President Ford tasked Vice President Rockefeller to investigate CIA activities in the U.S. The Rockefeller Commission immediately preceded the Church Committee and issued a report in June 1975, just as the Church Committee began. Senator Church criticized the Rockefeller Committee for being benign, especially for classifying details about the CIA’s most egregious acts—assassination plots and human experimentation. For example, CIA misdeeds were highlighted by an incident in November 1953. A CIA researcher, working in his office, when, unbeknownst to him, a co-worker slipped a large dose of the hallucinogen, LSD, into his drink. The victim, Dr. Frank Olson, suffered a bad reaction and was taken to a hotel in New York, for evaluation. Before Olson could be admitted to a hospital, he jumped out a window, to his death. Later, in 1975, President Ford issued a personal apology to Olson’s family and ordered the CIA to settle their lawsuit. The Olson tragedy revealed a flawed attempt by the CIA to experiment with hallucinogenic drugs and exposed a portion of the so-called CIA’s “family jewels;” a euphemism for the most important secrets of the agency. The Olson incident and other tragedies like it, made Senator Church feel as if there was no choice but to tackle uncomfortable issues and delve into the workings of the Agency. As the Church Committee proceeded, the darkest secrets of the CIA were exposed, to the embarrassment of the Agency. It was another chance Church had to take.
The United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities officially convened in early 1975. The committee had a daunting task to examine decades of alleged abuses, in a short amount of time—just one year. Because of the sensitive nature of intelligence work, most hearings were closed to the public. Committee members expressed a specific interest in domestic espionage, mostly out of shock over the scope and depth of these activities. The Committee called out the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and devoted several days for testimony. It was common knowledge the late J. Edgar Hoover, Director, FBI, kept personal files on prominent people, to further his political position. In public, the FBI was principally adept at lobbying Congress, a skill developed during a time when criminals such as John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd, menaced the U.S. The FBI rose to prominence fighting criminals and conducting foreign counterintelligence, resulting in a grateful American public and a positive image. Until the post-Watergate era, neither the FBI, nor the CIA, were closely scrutinized, despite oversight committees established in Congress. Church remarked about Congress’s relationship with the CIA, “The trouble is, the watchdog committee never really watched the dog.” That summed up the extent of the issue, until Hersh’s December 1974 The New York Times story broke it wide open.
In all, the Church Committee examined 110,000 documents, interviewed over 800 witnesses, and conducted 126 full committee hearings and 46 subcommittee hearings. The result was a public report of almost 700 pages. Highlights of the hearings included details of abuse by FBI, CIA, Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the National Security Agency (NSA). Public hearings held in the fall of 1975 highlighted a few sensational cases of misconduct. These cases included CIA forays into biological testing, White House domestic surveillance activities, IRS intelligence activities and FBI involvement in the Civil Rights Movement; as well as, its infiltration of anti-Vietnam War activities.
The FBI was under particular scrutiny because its role in the civil rights and anti-war efforts of the 1960s and 1970s. When the Church Committee convened to examine the FBI, it noted the Bureau’s unique role as a law enforcement agency. The Committee went out of its way to praise the FBI for protecting the rights of suspects involved in criminal cases. The report also noted the FBI was not only a criminal law enforcement agency, “It also has a domestic intelligence role which is separate from its criminal investigations.” There was never a full accounting of FBI domestic intelligence activities until the Church Committee. In establishing its legitimacy and necessity, the Committee decided to evaluate FBI domestic intelligence against the standard of the U.S. Constitution and the rule of law.
The Church Committee studied the, now infamous, Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO)—an FBI domestic surveillance program, which operated, without oversight, from the 1950s until 1971. COINTELPRO was rooted in internal social unrest following World War I, when revolutionaries and anarchists emerged in the U.S. following the establishment of the Soviet Union. The FBI, then known as the Bureau of Investigation (BOI), developed a system of indexing information collected on radicals. This is, perhaps, the first evidence of an organized effort to maintain intelligence files on citizens. Soon after, the BOI, with J. Edgar Hoover, as its head, participated in the Palmer Raids, circa 1919 to 1920. Named after Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, these raids were a U.S. Justice Department response to a wave of domestic terrorism linked to anarchists. Thousands of suspected anarchists were arrested across the country, in operations marked by poor planning, poor intelligence and with questionable regard to civil liberties. The Church Committee noted civil rights concerns among leading jurists, of the time. Echoing this concern, Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone, in 1924, raised the specter of the U.S. becoming a police state and warned the BOI to stay away from investigating political or other opinions of its citizens. Hoover agreed and domestic investigations tapered off until 1936. Then, on the eve of World War II, Hoover saw his chance, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR), expressed concern over the rise of fascism and communism. FDR contacted Hoover to discuss the matter. In their discussion, Hoover saw an opportunity to exploit a loophole in the law, in which the U.S. Department of State could request the FBI to conduct domestic intelligence. This was a pivotal event in domestic intelligence operations. By 1938, the FBI domestic surveillance program was a routine activity as World War II looked more likely. The FBI never retreated from this operation and later expanded its efforts in the early years of the Cold War. Later in 1940, a White House memorandum to Hoover seemed to embolden the FBI. Telegrams sent to FDR by citizens expressing “more or less opposition to national defense” were suggested as targets for investigation.
By the early 1960s, the FBIs COINTELPRO was fully mature and focused in two areas: The first area was a collection of intelligence on groups, movements or a category of person. The second area, was targeted intelligence, usually to determine if an individual or group was subversive or extremist. The Committee was shown a chart detailing FBI techniques during COINTELPRO operations. Tactics included: attacks on speaking, teaching, writing and meetings; interference with personal and economic rights; abuse of government processes; third party hostile (sic); factionalization; propaganda; and COMINIFIL (Communist Infiltration). To illustrate these tactics the Committee heard from various witnesses. The Committee’s Chief Counsel, Frederick Schwartz, testified of a particularly notorious event when the FBI mailed an anonymous letter to civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK), a month before he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, in late 1964. The “You Are Done” letter calls Dr. King a “fraud” and ‘psychotic” among other lengthy and disjointed insults. Moreover, it implied MLK should commit suicide: “King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is…before your filthy, abnormal; fraudulent self is bared to the nation.” Schwartz, interviewed by the C-SPAN3 television network in 2016, remarked how Hoover hated MLK and set out to destroy him. Hoover persuaded Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to wiretap MLK. Later, these wiretaps were used in attempt to discredit and embarrass King. Also, Hoover sought to link a key MLK aide to membership in the Communist Party, when in fact the adviser quit the organization years before he met MLK. Not to be discouraged, the FBIs continued efforts centered on connecting MLK to communism, which it never successfully established. The Church Committee devoted considerable time to the FBI/MLK relationship, mostly to highlight how the FBI overstepped its authority, in light of more pressing issues such as enforcing civil rights or investigating organized crime. Ultimately, MLK represented the noble struggle for human rights, fairness and equal treatment. He was widely admired and enjoyed broad support across a wide cross-section of society, despite official efforts to discredit him. The Church Committee, publicly, put the FBI in trial; something Congress was either unwilling or unable to do prior to 1975.
In stark contrast to spying on MLK, the FBI sought to collect intelligence on subversive groups such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The KKK operated in opposition to the Civil Rights Movement and increased its violent activities as the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum in the early 1960s. The Church Committee found fault with the FBI in this initiative. The KKK was frequent target of the FBI through the use of confidential informants. Any FBI efforts against the Klan seemed positive, but it was fraught with problems and conjured up the age old adage “the ends do not justify the means.” In his opening testimony, Senator Tower pointed out the use of informants had its problems, to include lack of a clear objective, operating outside the law and the lack of constitutional guarantees for the target. The Committee heard testimony from FBI informant Gary Thomas Rowe, who infiltrated the Klan. Rowe recounted how the FBI helped to arrange violence against a civil rights protest—The Birmingham Freedom Ride. Rowe was, initially, told not to participate in violence, but was, later, encouraged to do so in order to obtain intelligence. Rowe informed the FBI of planned violence against protestors, but nothing was done. The protesters were violently met with club wielding Klansmen, but the local field office of the FBI shrugged off the event, “We are an investigating agency, not an enforcement agency.” In Committee hearings, Chief Counsel Schwartz pointed out the FBI did not have a process for picking informants or effectively directing their activities, which often led to catastrophes such as The Birmingham Freedom Ride debacle. Rowe, also provided a lurid example of how misguided the FBI was in employing informants. Rowe testified he was instructed to break up marriages of Klansman by sleeping with their wives. By FBI reasoning, creating havoc in the personal lives of the Klan, Rowe would likely gain valuable intelligence.
On the same day Rowe testified, another FBI informant, Mary Jo Cook, testified on her efforts to infiltrate the anti-war group, Vietnam Veterans against The War (VVAW). Cook recounted how the FBI asked to her report on the group in the interest of keeping the organization from becoming violent or being manipulated. Cook was instructed be a “big sister…a voice of reason…a guiding force.” This seemed reasonable to Cook, who was idealistic and sympathetic to veterans. Cook attended meetings, wrote reports and informed on the social structure of the organization. After about eighteen months on the FBI payroll, Cook became disillusioned when she felt the context of her reporting was not understood by the FBI. She felt veterans needed social services, and not spying in the guise of national security. Moreover, Cook felt she was not adequately trained in the legalities of what information could be legally passed to the FBI. Cook was instructed not to pass information to the FBI to which they were not legally entitled. Cook realized she passed illegal information and became upset with the FBI for putting her in the position of making legal decisions—something she was not trained for. Not only was the use of an informant misguided, it also jeopardized pending legal cases associated with VVAW because Cook’s infiltration constituted government interference with the defendant’s case. The FBI’s long history of domestic intelligence operations, brought into the open by the Church Committee, in extensive testimony, was just a sampling of official government surveillance. The Committee turned its attention to the CIA, which openly competed with the FBI for influence and stature, something tested by the CIAs ill-advised forays into domestic activity.
The CIA was formally established by the National Security Act of 1947. This law defined the role of the CIA and specifically authorized it to conduct foreign intelligence activities. It also prohibited intelligence operations inside the U.S. The intent of was to keep the CIA from acting as a law enforcement agency within U.S. borders, much like a “secret police,” so common in totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. For an organization devoted to secrecy it carelessly exposed itself when it decided to engage in activities contrary to its charter.
The Church Committee explored CIA assassination plots in detail at the outset of the inquiry and issued an interim public report on 20 November 1975. Senator Barry Goldwater explained the purpose of issuing an interim report was to “lay the matter (assassinations) to rest.” Goldwater believed the interim report did not gather all the facts, compromised national security and generalized information. The Rockefeller Commission, which ran nearly parallel the Church Committee, also explored the assassination topic, but the Ford Administration classified eighty six pages of the final report. It remain classified until 1992, when it was released with portions heavily redacted. National security researchers John Prados and Arturo Jimenez-Bacardi examined the declassified material and concluded the Commission deliberately gave into political pressures from the Ford Administration, namely key aides Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Cheney. 
CIA Director William Colby met with the Church Committee over several days in May 1975 to discuss CIA activities from its creation to present. Before his testimony, Colby was warned by National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger not to reveal too much. There was concern in the Ford Administration and its allies in Congress of compromising national security and jeopardizing ongoing operations. Colby was also instructed to address past covert action only with Senator Church and the ranking minority member, Senator John Tower, despite the fact most of these activities were out in the open. The trending topic for Colby’s first public session was CIA involvement in assassination plots. The Committee sought answers to four questions:
- Did the U.S. instigate or attempt to assassinate foreign leaders?
- Did the U.S. assist foreign dissidents in plots to kill foreign leaders?
- In instance of plots or assassinations did who authorized such action?
- Were assassination activities perceived to be lawful?
Colby was put “on point” for the Ford Administration and the usually quiet and aloof spy chief took the brunt of the Committee, in televised hearings. He, later, complained to the White House about the Committee’s leading questions, which he described along the lines of “when did you stop beating your wife?” Colby tried to downplay the role of the Agency in assassination plots. Mostly, he wanted the Committee to appreciate the sensitive nature of the subject. In the end, the Committee concluded there was evidence of assassination plots by the CIA against the leaders of Cuba, Zaire, Dominican Republic, Chile and South Vietnam.
A “license to kill” is not just for James Bond and the movies. In real life, the CIA considered methods to do away with people it did not like. Poison was the preferred weapon against the leader of Zaire, Patrice Lumumba; but he was killed by rivals before the CIA could get to him. Likewise, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic eventually succumbed to the same fate as Lumumba, but not before the CIA supplied small caliber weapons to dissidents for the hit. In the end, the evidence was inconclusive if CIA weapons actually killed Trujillo, but it was determined the CIA played a role in the plot. Elsewhere in the Caribbean, the agency plotted to kill Cuban strong man Fidel Castro from about 1959 to 1965. The Castro plot gained headlines because of the involvement of organized crime, reports of tainted cigars and plots to use chemicals designed to destroy Castro’s signature beard. The Castro aspect stole most of the headlines and provided material for comedians. Across the world in Southeast Asia, South Vietnam’s leader, Ngo Dinh Diem, was assassinated in 1963 as part of U.S. supported coup. His killing was spontaneous and did not directly involve the CIA, but the Agency, notably William Colby, were certainly involved. Perhaps, the most notorious plot of the era involved the overthrow of Chile’s government in 1970. General Rene Schneider, a key Chilean military figure, was kidnapped and shot by a group involved with the overthrow. The Committee found no evidence the CIA specifically supported Schneider’s killing, but the overall involvement of the CIA with the overthrow of a sovereign government remains an open wound, decades later.
When the Church Committee released its interim report, it rejected assassination “as an instrument of American policy.” It also called for the passage of legislation outlawing political assassination. President Ford found CIA involvement in assassination plots distressing and wanted to avoid any appearance of a cover-up in respect to the Church Committee. To demonstrate earnestness, Ford issued Executive Order 11905, in February1976, in part, prohibiting any member of the U.S. government from engaging or conspiring to support political assassination. When the final report was published, the Church Committee concluded it could not determine if the president or other higher ranking government officials authorized assassinations of foreign leaders. It also concluded CIA officials thought they were working within the law, but the Committee did not let them off the hook. The Agency was criticized for failing to disclose their plans to “superior authorities.” Moreover, the report scolded the executive branch for not ruling out assassination as a policy, especially after the discovery of these plots. The sordid assassination issue was concluded with a stern warning how the nature of intelligence operations, with its secrecy, compartmentalization and avoidance of responsibility “…creates the risk of confusion and rashness in the very areas where clarity and sober judgment are most necessary.” The issue remains controversial, as the U.S. military currently conducts targeted killings via drone strikes to kill enemies, in support of counterterrorism. If assassination plots did not shock the American public, then certainly the outrage over domestic spying would.
The Church Committee moved on from CIA assassination plots to hearings involving formal plans developed for the IC to conduct domestic intelligence operations. The Watergate hearings from 1973 brought these plans to light, and with it, an example of the extreme options considered by U.S. political leaders to control internal dissent. The Huston Plan, named for its author Tom Charles Huston, an aide to President Richard Nixon, who led its creation. The 1970 plan called for a radical change from ordinary run-of-the-mill domestic surveillance, in existence since the Roosevelt Administration. The existence of the Huston Plan shocked the American public and many likened it to a blue print for a police state. President Nixon, in his memoirs, downplayed the importance of the Huston Plan and quoted Senator Church who said the plan “was limited to techniques far more restrictive than the far reaching methods employed by the FBI…” Huston’s plan called for an interagency effort to coordinate wiretaps, break-ins, mail intercepts and the like. Targets were anti-war activists, students, black militants, and others deemed as threats. President Nixon approved the Huston Plan in July 1970, but did not want to sign anything formal. Nixon justified the plan as an appropriate way for the chief executive to exercise domestic surveillance powers instead of field agents making decisions. Who, but the president is better equipped to deal with emergencies? Within a week, J. Edgar Hoover complained to the Attorney General, causing Nixon to revoke the plan. Undoubtedly, Hoover’s opposition was self-serving, because the plan encroached on the FBI and Hoover was extremely territorial. Lower level administrators in the IC, who helped develop the scheme, were disappointed the plan was canceled. The Hutson Plan was their chance to enjoy expanded powers and rival the FBI. The Church Committee concluded certain illegal activities such as mail openings, break-ins and wiretaps existed before and after the brief life of the Huston Plan; and President Nixon was, ultimately, deceived by the IC. The plan was viewed by the Committee as a continuing effort by the IC to seek approval from “higher authorities for expanded surveillance at home and abroad.” In other words, the IC sought legitimacy for questionable activities. Any questions about the necessity of the Church Committee, were, undoubtedly, put to rest.”
By the time the Church Committee concluded its hearings it had cast a wide net into many facets of domestic law enforcement and the surreptitious activities of the IC. It touched on assassination plots, use of toxic agents against enemies and some friends, foreign and military intelligence, domestic law enforcement. Furthermore, it explored the roles of bit players, such as the U.S. Postal Service, AT&T and the IRS in spying on the American public. Not to be understated was how the Committee accentuated the importance of the rights of U.S. citizens in regard to Fourth Amendment guarantees from the Constitution. The legacy of the Church Committee is summed up into two major pieces of legislation. First, the establishment of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Established in 1976, the Committee was created to provide continuing legislative oversight of the IC in respect to the Constitution and U.S. law. The law put forth the Senate’s proper role in overseeing the activities of the IC, specifically overt and covert activities, budgets, personnel and IC related legislation. It was no longer a passive committee. In the 1978, The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) was enacted into law. This legislation was a direct result of the Church Committee investigation, which found widespread abuse of domestic surveillance, namely warrantless searches and wiretapping. The law also established secret FISA courts in which the IC could approach a federal judge and make its case for search and seizure authority. A judge, not a bureaucrat, would decide the merits of intruding on a citizen’s privacy. FISA courts were established not to rubber stamp the IC, but to examine legitimate requests in regard to the U.S. Constitution and federal law. Today, the FISA law and all of its mandates remain an important foundation of intelligence oversight, having withstood the challenges of 9/11 and efforts to roll back some of the Church Committee recommendations.
Perhaps, the most enduring legacy of the Church Committee, was its namesake, Frank Church. Church was as dedicated and hard working as any member of the Senate. The inquiry into the IC took its toll on him. During the Committee’s tenure, he seemed angry and tense. He was particularly incensed at the cavalier attitude of the IC in respect to civil liberties. Moreover, Church was unhappy an IC dossier on him hinted he might be disloyal to the country. While other senators dismissed their IC dossiers, Church was furious. Over time, Church’s Senate office endured various crackpots and paranoids who claimed the government was spying on them. In the tumultuous times of the post-Watergate era, revelations of domestic spying riled the American public, putting Church and his colleagues in the spotlight. The Senator drew comfort in his idealism in which he took a moral view of his Senate duties. While idealistic, he was also skeptical and indignant of the establishment. Church was criticized in some quarters, to include his own staff, as unwilling to fight conservatives such as Senator Tower and Senator Goldwater. Even The New York Times’ Seymour Hersh called out Church as too lenient with the CIA. In reality, Church sought unanimity among the Committee and tried to bargain for concessions. He challenged the Ford Administration and publicly criticized the President on several occasions; namely for replacing CIA Director Colby with George H.W. Bush. Church brushed off comments the Committee was endangering national defense and destabilizing allies. When the final report was published in April 1976, both Tower and Goldwater declined to sign the report. Instead, they published a minority report which acknowledged past illegal behavior, but asserted the Congress should not restrain the President from exercising discretion in the realm of national security. Senator Church prevailed in keeping the final report unclassified and public. He viewed his efforts as successful and considered democracy better for having examined its dark past. A well informed democratic electorate was much preferred to the veils of totalitarian secrecy. Looking inward, Senator Church remarked of his committee’s work with an often repeated verse from the Holy Bible, “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”
The history of the U.S. is one in which the country embarks on periods of self-correction. Self-correction in the sense that a great nation, through the democratic process, makes periodic course adjustments, much like a ship at sea. U.S. history is replete with examples, such as the wholesale societal changes following the Civil War, the emergence from isolation and entry in World War I, the assumption of world leadership during and after World War II. And, finally, the Civil Rights Movement, with its tectonic societal shift in the era of the Vietnam War, of which the Church Committee played an important ancillary role. As for the latter, self-correction was a multi-step process in which a free press presented a problem and the forces of democracy made necessary adjustments through public disclosure, thoughtful debate and attentive legislation. For this reason, the Church Committee is held in high regard as it served as a catalyst for reform and substantiated the efficacy of the system of checks and balances, as envisioned by the framers of the Constitution.
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