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The Secret Government | The Nation

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The Secret Government

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As the staff dug deeper, they came to realize that something was very rotten indeed at the heart of the national security state. "I think we were all shocked at the extent of the abuses of power by these agencies," says Johnson. "We had, of course, read Sy Hersh's piece. Cointelpro--that was not a part of Sy Hersh's article, and that was simply shocking. Not only did it involve domestic surveillance but domestic covert action. There were a number of things that were really eye-opening."

The committee's investigations had a radicalizing effect on even the top staffers like Schwarz and minority counsel Curtis Smothers. "As they were reading our reports," says Banoff, "we'd hear from Fritz, who had just read some draft report on some particularly outrageous misdeed: 'Goddamn it!' And he'd pound the desk. And then from Curtis: 'Those bastards!' Pound the desk. It was like a counterpuntal hymn."

Contrary to right-wing caricature, the committee was not staffed with crusading liberals. Indeed, almost every former staff member I interviewed made a point of emphasizing that the staff was not particularly ideological and operated without fear or favor. "The best thing they did," says Banoff, was "they didn't have separate majority and minority staff. I never got asked what party I belonged to, at all. That wasn't what Fritz was looking for. The staffs were integrated; we all worked together. We really did. We didn't have any obstructionism from a senator or a senator's designee."

Bill Bader, a former CIA analyst and naval intelligence officer chosen to run the committee's CIA task force, doesn't quite agree. "John Tower and Barry Goldwater [Republican senators on the committee] didn't think there should be anything at all," says Bader. "That was their whole view of the whole thing, and they made Church and [fellow committee member Walter] Mondale's life kind of miserable." That said, at the staff level Bader says his relationships inside the CIA helped a great deal. "But most of the analytical world was very happy for me to have that role because they knew me, because they knew I was fair, serious and I didn't have an ax to grind."

Particularly crucial was the reluctant compliance of CIA director William Colby. Colby's predecessor, Richard Helms, was of the old school: blatantly contemptuous of oversight of any kind. According to Bader, Helms felt that "this investigation was traitorous, pure and simple; you don't do things like that." Colby, on the other hand, was committed to reforming the agency and, some say, privately feared that if he fought Congress, there was a possibility it would try to get rid of the agency altogether.

Colby's attitude proved crucial to the committee's success. Though endowed with subpoena power, it had no enforcement capability to compel the Ford administration to turn over relevant documents, and at first the administration stonewalled. But the Church Committee benefited greatly from playing good cop to the House Pike Committee's bad cop, which quickly became embroiled in an escalating series of showdowns over testimony and disclosure, which Henry Kissinger also tried to stonewall. The Church Committee emerged as a kind of middle path--the sober, responsible investigators the administration could work with. "One of the reasons that the Senate committee got along well [with the White House]," says staff member Richard Betts, now a professor of political science at Columbia University, "is because [White House officials] were really pissed off at the Pike Committee, which they considered partisan and more flaky."

Committee investigators ultimately read through thousands of previously unreleased files. Without this access, the Church Committee couldn't have exposed what it did. Which prompts the question: were Congress to undertake a similar inquiry today, would the White House cooperate?

So far, the White House's record on disclosure has been disappointing. With the notable and admirable exception of its decision to release the Bush administration's Office of Legal Counsel's (OLC) memos authorizing torture, the Obama administration has largely continued to fight against disclosure of everything from photos of detainee abuse to even the most basic facts about the US detention center at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. It has invoked the state secrets privilege in federal court to keep hidden details about the Bush administration's wiretapping program and what exactly happened to detainees at Guantánamo. (Full disclosure: my wife works in the White House counsel's office.)

In these and other cases, however, the White House is fighting outside groups like the ACLU, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which it can try to stonewall in the courts with relatively little press attention. In the case of Congressional subpoenas, it would be impossible to replicate that strategy without provoking a serious political outcry. Indeed, the partisan incentives in such a scenario may work in favor of disclosure. As unlikely as it may seem, Republicans on such a committee might find themselves zealously pursuing more disclosure. When the White House released the notorious OLC torture memos, Dick Cheney responded with an uncharacteristic push for more disclosure, arguing that releasing other documents would show the effectiveness of torture in foiling terror plots.

There was a somewhat similar dynamic in effect with the Church Committee, one that helped create momentum for greater levels of transparency. Since the committee began in the wake of Nixon's resignation and revelations about his deceptions, abuses and sociopathic pursuit of grudges, Church and many Democrats had every reason to believe they would be chiefly unmasking the full depths of Nixon's perfidy. Quickly, however, it became clear that Nixon was a difference in degree rather than a difference in kind. Kennedy and Johnson had, with J. Edgar Hoover, put in place many of the illegal policies and programs. Secret documents obtained by the committee even revealed that the sainted FDR had ordered IRS audits of his political enemies. Republicans on the committee, then, had as much incentive to dig up the truth as did their Democratic counterparts.

As historian Kathy Olmsted argues in her book Challenging the Secret Government, Church was never quite able to part with this conception of good Democrats/bad Republicans. Confronted with misdeeds under Kennedy and Johnson, he chose to view the CIA as a rogue agency, as opposed to one executing the president's wishes. This characterization became the fulcrum of debate within the committee. At one point Church referred to the CIA as a "rogue elephant," causing a media firestorm. But the final committee report shows that to the degree the agency and other parts of the secret government were operating with limited control from the White House, it was by design. Walter Mondale came around to the view that the problem wasn't the agencies themselves but the accretion of secret executive power: "the grant of powers to the CIA and to these other agencies," he said during a committee hearing, "is, above all, a grant of power to the president."

A contemporary Church Committee would do well to follow Mondale's approach and not Church's. It must comprehensively evaluate the secret government, its activities and its relationship to Congress stretching back through several decades of Democratic and Republican administrations. Such a broad scope would insulate the committee from charges that it was simply pursuing a partisan vendetta against a discredited Republican administration, but it is also necessary to understand the systemic problems and necessary reforms.

Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA's Osama bin Laden unit and author of several books sharply critical of Bush's management of the "war on terror," says he would be "happy" to testify before such a committee to explain the rendition program he designed and supervised under Clinton. That program allowed the United States to capture wanted terrorists and send them back to other countries to face prosecution and, in some cases, likely torture and mistreatment. It was this program that would come to serve as the foundation for the Bush policy of "extraordinary rendition," which amounted to the extralegal disappearing of suspected terrorists around the world.

We don't know much about what other secret programs Clinton and other former presidents implemented, but it's possible that under sustained scrutiny the sharp division between the Bush administration and its predecessors will begin to blur.

The Church Committee's final report was released on April 26, 1976, in six books. Its recommendations laid the groundwork for a series of reforms that more or less constitute the current architecture of intelligence oversight. Before the Church Committee, there was no stand-alone intelligence committee overseeing the executive. Whatever communication there was between the two branches of government was decidedly one-way. "[CIA director] Allen Dulles would come up himself to the Hill," Bill Bader told me, "not to a committee room. And he would sit down with [lawmakers] out in the Congressional corridors and whisper things into their ears and say, Can't tell anyone about them. And then he would go back up to the CIA."

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