The Church Committee, for Dummies
A Deep Dive Into One of the Most Important Committees in History
The House recently voted to establish a “Church-style” committee called “the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government.” The new subcommittee is expected to be chaired by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) and will have wide-ranging powers to investigate various alleged civil liberties violations by government agencies. It will be housed within the Judiciary Committee, which Jordan also chairs.
The committee that this new subcommittee is modeled after was one of the most historically significant committees to have ever come out of the United States Senate. Its original name was the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, but it was referred to colloquially as ‘the Church Committee’ Sadly, most Americans know very little, if anything, about this committee.
1975 was dubbed the "Year of Intelligence" and saw the public's first real glimpse behind the curtain at the "silent war;" that is, a war on the privacy of American citizens that was being waged relentlessly, albeit furtively, by the CIA, the FBI and the NSA. This war was brought to the public's attention in an official capacity by Senator Frank Church, who chaired a select committee in 1975.
Church (D-Idaho) first laid out some of the committee’s findings, as well as a justification for said investigations, on Meet the Press in 1975:
“...in the need to develop a capacity to know what potential enemies might be doing, the United States government has perfected a technological capability that allows us to monitor the messages that go through the air… that capability, at any time, could be turned around on the American people. No American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything. There would be no place left to hide if this government ever turned to tyranny.”
This recording and the investigations may have taken place in 1975; however, the original Church Committee came about as a direct result of the 1973 Senate Watergate Committee investigation, which revealed that the executive branch had directed national intelligence agencies to carry out constitutionally-questionable domestic security operations. In 1974, journalist Seymour Hersh published an article in the New York Times claiming that the CIA had been spying on anti-war activists for more than a decade, violating the agency’s charter. Former CIA officials and some lawmakers, including Senators William Proxmire and Stuart Symington, would call for a congressional inquiry. (#) (#) (#)
In January of 1975, Senator John Pastore would introduce a resolution to establish a select committee to investigate federal intelligence operations and determine “the extent, if any, to which illegal, improper, or unethical activities were engaged in by any agency of the Federal Government.” The Senate would approve the resolution, 82-4. (#)
Out of either a fear of public awareness or a general concern over how the findings of the investigation would be received, Majority Leader Mike Mansfield cautioned the Senate "against letting the affair become a television extravaganza.” He and Republican Leader Hugh Scott carefully selected committee members, balancing experienced lawmakers with junior members and ensuring that members represented a variety of political viewpoints. When Philip Hart declined to lead the committee for health-related reasons, Mansfield selected Democrat Frank Church of Idaho to serve as chairman.
Church, who was then a 16-year member of the Committee on Foreign Relations (not to be confused with the nefarious Council on Foreign Relations), had previously co-chaired a special committee that critically examined the executive branch’s consolidation of power in the Cold War era, so he’d already proven himself capable of leading the new committee.
Additionally, Church recognized the strategic value of the nation’s top intelligence agencies and was at the same time mindful of the need for American institutions to function within the confines of U.S. constitutional law. He aggressively lobbied to lead the investigation and was joined by Republican John Tower of Texas, a member of the Armed Services Committee, who was selected as the committee’s vice-chairman.
It was decided that most of the committee’s hearings would be held in closed, executive sessions; this was done in order to “protect intelligence sources and methods.” The committee did hold a series of public hearings in September and October of 1975 to educate the American public about the “unlawful or improper conduct” of the intelligence community, making it a point to highlight a few carefully-selected examples of misconduct.
Among the examples deemed acceptable for public consumption was a CIA “biological agents program,” a White House “domestic surveillance program,” IRS intelligence activities and the FBI’s program to disrupt the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. These realities coming to light on national television marked the first time the American public was given an opportunity by their own government to learn about the secret operations conducted for decades by U.S. intelligence agencies. (#)
(Footage from the October 1975 Public Hearings)
According to Chief Counsel Frederick Schwarz, at the outset of the investigations, the NSA’s general counsel told him:
“...The constitution does not apply to the National Security Agency.”
The committee garnered much national attention; however, it was predictably met with criticism, some of which dismissed the inquiry as merely a vehicle for Senator Church’s 1976 presidential bid. (Church would declare his candidacy in March 1976.)
Others argued that the congressional inquiries—the House conducted its own separate investigation—had undermined the security and credibility of U.S. intelligence agencies.
Additionally, the assassination of Richard Welch, a CIA station chief in Greece, who was murdered outside of his home in Athens on Christmas Day, 1975, diverted the public’s attention from the committee’s focus on intelligence abuses, and subsequently drummed up sympathy for the intelligence community.
Despite the critics, Church remained resolute in his belief in “the right of the public to know what the instrumentalities of their government have done.”
The committee faced a monumental task: conducting a wide-ranging investigation of the nation’s most secret agencies and their respective programs, and, based on those findings, writing a detailed report that would include legislative recommendations. All of this work was originally expected to be completed within one year, but would later be extended to 16 months.
Church and his vice chairman, Tower, would meet with President Gerald R. Ford and his top national security advisors to secure from the president a pledge that the White House would cooperate with Senate investigators. Though the investigative staff did not always receive documents in a timely fashion, they did enjoy seemingly unprecedented access to materials that had never before been made public. Whether these materials were strategically selected prior to the committee receiving them is unknown.
The most well-known of these internal reports was colloquially referred to as the CIA’s "Family Jewels," which outlined the agency’s misdeeds dating back to the Eisenhower administration. This report, as well as those found in other agencies, provided road maps that staff investigators used to piece together complicated histories of domestic, foreign and military intelligence programs during the Cold War era. Organizing and analyzing these materials proved to be an arduous task, even with a peak staff of 150. (#)
Though the “Family Jewels” are lauded as the most explosive secrets of the Central Intelligence Agency, many see this report as a cherry-picked and sanitized placation rather than a genuine attempt to come clean. The report itself admits that much of the content comes from “the recollections of the senior people in this office.”
(You can read the report in its entirety HERE.)
Despite the numerous challenges, the Church committee did successfully investigate and identify a wide range of intelligence abuses by federal agencies, including the CIA, FBI, Internal Revenue Service and National Security Agency. Over the course of their work, investigators identified programs that had never before been known to the American public, including the NSA’s Projects SHAMROCK and MINARET, which monitored wire communications to and from the United States and shared some of that data with other intelligence agencies.
The Committee also investigated the FBI’s long-running program of “covert action designed to disrupt and discredit the activities of groups and individuals deemed a threat to the social order,” known as COINTELPRO, which aimed at surveilling, infiltrating, discrediting and disrupting American political organizations.
Through this program the FBI targeted: the National Lawyers Guild, the American Indians Movement, the Black Panthers, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the anti-Vietnam War movement and individuals such as Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as local, state and federal elected officials. This list is by no means comprehensive, and it is more than likely that similar programs are in operation today.
In the end, after holding 126 full committee meetings, 40 subcommittee hearings, interviewing some 800 witnesses in public and closed sessions, and combing through 110,000 documents, the committee published its final report on April 29, 1976.
The committee and its investigators found that beginning with President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration and continuing through the early 1970s, “intelligence excesses, at home and abroad,” were not the “product of any single party, administration, or man,” but had developed as America rose to become a superpower during a global Cold War.
“Intelligence agencies have undermined the constitutional rights of citizens,” the final report concluded, “primarily because checks and balances designed by the framers of the Constitution to assure accountability have not been applied.”
In a separate appended view, Senator Tower acknowledged “intelligence excesses” and the “need for expanded legislative, executive and judicial involvement in intelligence policy and practices.” He cautioned, however, that Congress should not “unnecessarily” restrain the president from exercising discretion in the realm of national security.
Additionally, the final report did include more than 90 recommendations, both legislative and regulatory, that were designed to “place intelligence activities within the constitutional scheme for controlling government power.” The committee observed that “there is no inherent constitutional authority for the President or any intelligence agency to violate the law,” and suggested fortifying oversight of intelligence activities. The Church Committee’s work, which earned it the respect of many members of the Senate, ultimately led to some reform efforts throughout the intelligence community.
But as we realize today, these efforts were far from comprehensive, as nearly 50 years later, we see that the intelligence community has brazenly taken its misconduct to new levels. Perhaps this is the reason alternative media and conservative pundits have been calling for a new “Church-style” committee; America is long past due.
It is our hope that Rep. Jim Jordan and the newly created Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government can bring the public’s attention to the troubles that face all citizens of this country.
Of course, the establishment Democrats seem prepared to do whatever it takes to slander and impede anything that comes from these investigations. California Democratic Rep. Pete Aguilar said last week,
"It's in our best interest to make sure we are representing the will of the caucus and the American public, and that Republicans don't have an opportunity behind closed doors to shape, and to add to, these conspiracy theories …"
These America First Representatives should have learned by now; the only conspiracy theories allowed in Congress are the ones peddled by the intelligence community via compromised Democrats and the mainstream media.