Almost forty years ago, a Senate select committee known as the Church Committee for its chair, Idaho Senator Frank Church, investigated America’s secret government. The committee’s investigation remains the most extensive of its kind in this nation’s history. Now it is time for a new committee to examine our secret government closely again, particularly for its actions in the post-9/11 period.
This need is underscored by what has become a full-blown crisis, with Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein accusing the CIA of spying on the committee, possibly violating the Constitution’s separation-of-powers principles, the Fourth Amendment and other laws.
The Church Committee uncovered shocking conduct by numerous agencies, including the FBI, CIA and NSA. For example, the FBI tried to get Martin Luther King Jr. to commit suicide; the CIA enlisted the Mafia in its attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro; and the NSA and its predecessor, the Armed Forces Security Agency, obtained copies of most telegrams leaving America for a period of thirty years. An agency little known then but these days at the center of the news, the NSA’s example provides an urgent warning. Its original aim was to decode encrypted telegrams sent home by foreign ambassadors. But then, exemplifying the “mission creep” that the Church Committee found endemic, the NSA trained its sights on anti–Vietnam War protesters and civil rights activists.
Many expected the Church Committee to focus its attention on exposing the abuses of the Nixon administration. But the committee’s most important finding was that every administration from FDR’s through Nixon’s—four Democrats and two Republicans—had abused its secret powers. This finding helped the committee’s internal cohesion and external impact.
The ability now to look into the post-9/11 secret programs conducted under administrations from both parties should add to the impetus to form a new committee. Several years ago, I testified before Congress in favor of creating a committee to investigate post-9/11 practices like secret torture and warrantless wiretapping. But an investigation then would have focused only on the Bush/Cheney administration, making partisan splits more likely. This was probably one reason that Barack Obama opposed such an investigation, indicating that he wanted to look forward rather than back. At the time, Senate Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy quipped that “we need to be able to read the page before we turn it,” but Obama prevailed.
Now the revelations by Edward Snowden confirm that a new investigation would have to cover more than one administration. Today’s world of terror threats is different from the Cold War world that existed in the Church Committee’s day. Today’s technology is also vastly different. But those differences only add to the need for a new and comprehensive nonpartisan investigation.
As a result of the Church Committee, two institutions were created to check the enormous powers of our secret government: intelligence committees in both houses of Congress, and the court established under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Over time, each has become a less reliable check. In addition, courts have bent over backwards to accept “state secrecy” claims by the Bush and Obama administrations. The same is true in Freedom of Information Act cases. On the other hand, some checks, including agency inspectors general, are stronger than before.