Thirty years ago, on April 26, 1976, the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, delivered its final report detailing the lawlessness of U.S. intelligence agencies and the need for Congress to reassert the Constitutional system of checks and balances to order to rein in the cloak-and-dagger excesses of the executive branch of the federal government.
The committee, mercifully referred to by the last name of its chair, U.S. Senator Frank Church, D-Idaho, produced fourteen reports on the formation of U.S. intelligence agencies, the manner in which they had and were continuing to operate, and the abuses of law and of power — up to and including murder — committed by these agencies in Chile, the Congo, Cuba, Vietnam and other nations that experienced the attention of U.S. authorities in the Cold War era.
The committee also made 96 recommendations for how to do that. Some of those recommendations, such as the committee’s call for creation of a permanent Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and for a ban on assassinations of foreign leaders, were implemented. But, as the current controversy over President Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program illustrates, the potential abuses about which the Church Committee warned were not entirely — nor even adequately — thwarted.
It was not for lack of trying by Senator Church, one of the most courageous legislators in American history, and his colleagues on the committee. As Senator Church said when the committee completed its work: “The United States must not adopt the tactics of the enemy. Means are important, as ends. Crisis makes it tempting to ignore the wise restraints that make men free. But each time we do so, each time the means we use are wrong, our inner strength, the strength which makes us free, is lessened.”
The fundamental charge of the Church Committee to the Congress and the American people was not found in the details of the reports specific allegations and recommendations. Rather, it was in the committee’s bold reassertion of the founding principle of the Republic — that only by checking and balancing the excesses of the executive branch can basic liberties be defended.
To renew the inner strength of the nation, the Church Committee first recalled the threats that arise when the executive branch is allowed to operate in secrecy and without constraint:
The natural tendency of Government is toward abuse of power. Men entrusted with power, even those aware of its dangers, tend, particularly when pressured, to slight liberty.
Our constitutional system guards against this tendency. It establishes many different checks upon power. It is those wise restraints which ‘keep men free. In the field of intelligence those restraints have too often been ignored.
The three main departures in the intelligence field from the constitutional plan for controlling abuse of power have been: