The University of Kentucky hosted a panel called, “Who’s Watching the Spies: Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans – A Look Back at the Church Committee Report.” Walter Mondale, Walter Huddleston, and Fred Schwartz participated in the discussion.
On December 22, 1974, the New York Times published an article written by Seymour Hersh called “Huge C.I.A. Operation Reported in U.S. Against Antiwar Forces, Other Dissidents in Nixon Years.” As the title of this article suggests, the Times had uncovered an illegal CIA operation against U.S. citizens living in America. In reaction to this story and others, Congress would began to take a closer took at the activities of the CIA, FBI, and NSA. Initially, many members of Congress were reluctant to investigate the inner workings of our intelligence agencies.
“I talked to several of the veteran Senators,” said Senator Huddleston. “And most of them said, ‘We don’t want to know. I don’t want to know what the CIA is doing. I don’t want to know what the intelligence committee is doing.’ Well, that was fine until these revelations began to come.”1
On January 27, 1975, the Senate decided to create a committee to investigate the allegations. This committee would become known as the Church Committee, which was named after Frank Church, the Senator who led the committee. Both Senator Mondale and Senator Huddleston were members of the Church Committee while Schwartz acted as the committee’s chief counsel.
“It was the first time ever in the history of the country that any group ever sat down and looked at the entire intelligence operation of our country at the same time,” said Senator Huddleston.
Not only that, but according to Senator Mondale, the Church Committee was probably the only committee that ever had unrestricted access to FBI documents.
The committee quickly discovered that our intelligence agencies had repeatedly violated the law. And their illegal activities were not limited to the Nixon administration. They happened in every administration since FDR. Congress was astounded by what they discovered. One of the officials who examined the COINTELPRO documents said, “I can’t believe what I read today.”
COINTELPRO was a program conducted by the FBI. As part of this program, the FBI carried out a series of activities meant to discredit and disrupt political organizations inside America. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the targets of this program. Of course, he ended up getting assassinated. The Church Committee never said that our government killed him, but I’m thinking the fact that our government targeted him and the fact that he ended up dead can’t be a coincidence.
“A major part of what we uncovered was activities against American citizens in this country,” said Senator Huddleston. “It was very extensive and beyond what most people even realize today. It was the kind of thing that couldn’t continue to happen.”
The committee also discovered an extensive assassination program conducted by the CIA.
“If we didn’t like somebody, we sent a visitor to see them,” said Senator Mondale. “That is what happened in Chile. They had elected a democracy and somebody decided we didn’t like him. And we went down there and helped others kidnap General Schneider, whose sin was that he believed that they should follow the constitution. So he was removed and assassinated. And I think Chile has taken almost 30 years to get over it because our involvement became known.”
“The government and the agencies assumed everything would always be secret forever and they’re not going to be secret forever,” said Schwartz. “And when they become known, there’s a price that’s paid.”
The Church Committee also discovered that, at one point, the CIA tried to get the mafia to assassinate Fidel Castro.
“The fact that the United States of America would call in two mafia people to help us eliminate some guy illegally by murder because we disagreed with him is the kind of thing we were confronted with almost across the board during this investigation,” said Senator Huddleston.
The panel agreed that our intelligence agencies were able to break the law because the oversight of those agencies was insufficient.
“When not observed we found in our despair, time and time again over in American history there’s something about us that we tend to do more than we should when we are not being watched,” said Mondale.
According to Schwartz, over the years, all of the intelligence agencies suffered from a “mission creep” problem. In the beginning, their actions would be reasonable. But over time, they would expand their mission and their powers to a point where they were breaking the law. As an example of this, Schwartz cited the NSA. Originally, the NSA examined diplomatic cables sent by foreign governments. But later on, the NSA began to spy on antiwar and civil rights leaders in the U.S.
“What happened with the NSA happened with all the other agencies,” said Schwartz. “Because they were immune from oversight, because they believed what they were doing would always be secret, what started small expanded from the acceptable to the unacceptable.”
“It shows why you can’t rely on generalizations coming from people defending their programs,” said Schwartz “Find out what the real facts are.”
The moderator of the panel, Tracy Campbell, noted that the Church Committee was reviled by the media.
“I have never seen a group generate the kind of hostility that the Church Committee did,” said Campbell. “In fact, TV Guide wrote an editorial that said, ‘A hundred KGB agents working overtime for the Kremlin would hardly have undermined the CIA as effectively as Senator Church’s Committee. It was a shocking and immeasurably harmful blow to our national security.’ And they weren’t alone. There was a number of people who said that.”
The panel disagreed with that assessment. According to Senator Mondale, several FBI and CIA directors said the Church Committee was the best thing to happen to their organizations. In fact, Senator Huddleston argued that the Church Committee saved the CIA.
“I don’t think there is any doubt that we saved the CIA,” said Senator Huddleston. “If things had kept going as they were with the various press releases coming out, as people saw some of the things that were happening and we have just touched on two or three here tonight. The list of the activities of our intelligence community against the individual rights of the citizens of this country would fill volumes. During our over year and a half of investigating, we couldn’t even cover maybe half of them. And some of the ones we did, we had to do it in a rather cursory manner. But that could not have continued. They were losing their effectiveness once the people began to understand, not only the people in this country, but our enemies understood how they operated. They were losing what effect they could have. Plus they were losing the confidence of the American people.”
Senator Mondale argued the U.S. was better off when our government upheld our ideals.
“We have a big stake as Americans in guaranteeing that our system of constitutional law is sustained,” said Senator Mondale. “Every big power that was around when America was born decided its future was to be found in some kind of imperial, magisterial power with no rights to the citizen. We started with the idea that this would be a government of the people, by the people, and under the law. Read the oath of office, read the constitution, read the federalist papers. We wanted a government that was accountable. And that has made America, I believe, more than anything else, the greatest, strongest nation on earth. And we lose something when we take lightly this idea of constitutional and legal rights of our people.”
The panel seemed to believe the Church Committee and the issues it raised were particularly important now, during the Bush administration. Several members of the panel attacked the Bush administration for its disregard of the law.
“What is being debated now is a really radical position that the current administration is taking,” said Schwartz. “Their position is that the United States President has the right to break the law if he thinks it is important to do that. Now that is not the way our country was constructed. It was not constructed to set up a monarch. In fact we revolted against the English because we didn’t want a monarch.”
For his part, Senator Mondale blamed Congress for refusing to rein in the President.
“In the last three or four years, it’s been what the New York Times called a Kabuki Congress,” said Senator Mondale. “It operates with the appearance of power but not the substance and it doesn’t work.”
Senator Mondale believed that America needed to start discussing the issues of governmental power and oversight.
“We should have a dialogue in the United States that’s based on facts, it’s not based on fear, and wrestle with these tough issues in a responsible way,” said Senator Mondale. “And I think Jefferson was right when he said an informed public is usually going to get it right. Now the public isn’t sufficiently informed today, in part because of secrecy and in part because of fear … We need to put our trust in the people and hope for that kind of open dialogue which we were lucky enough to have in 1975 and 1976.”
Walter Mondale closed the panel with this statement.
“I think the history of America has repeatedly shown the tension between fear and faith, fear that our system doesn’t work, fear about each other and our patriotism, fear about our ability to confront an enemy, and fear about our capacity to even protect ourselves. On the other hand, faith in our laws, faith in our constitution, faith in what democracy and enlightened people can produce, and the willingness to trust that system to be the most basic source of security for us all. I think today, once again, just like in World War II, we became afraid of Japanese Americans, and we rounded them all up and put them in concentration camps, even though many of their sons were in the U.S. Army over there in Europe. It was irrational. We were afraid. And so we did something that we’re sorry about now. Because in our fear, we acted. Time and time again. The alien sedition act. In my state, in World War I, we rounded up a lot of the German American mayors and threw them out of office because we were afraid of them. That fear always impedes us, always makes us look weaker to the world, less sure of ourselves. We’ve got an adversary. We have to deal with that adversary, but let’s do it with faith and competence and strength.”
Now those are all fine words, but in many respects the Congress of the Church Committee was as much a Kabuki Congress as the current one. Remember, the FBI and CIA referred to the Church Committee as the best thing that ever happened to their organizations. The Church Committee gave the appearance of oversight. The subsequent FISA legislation gave the appearance that Congress had reined our intelligence agencies. But that never really happened.
The panelists spoke the right words, but I don’t believe they said them with any real conviction. The Church Committee failed. They failed to rein in our intelligence agencies. They failed to hold the criminals accountable for their actions.
We must have accountability. We must have transparency. The public must be told the truth. Immediately. History must end.
1 Presumably, the reason why Congress never wanted to investigate our intelligence agencies was because our intelligence agencies were manipulating our members of Congress.