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We Need a New “Church Committee” to Curb Massive Intelligence Agency Criminality Ranging From Illegal Surveillance to Torture and Assassination!
Russia-Gate and CIA ties to Ukrainian death squads, along with killer drone program and worldwide surveillance apparatus, necessitates new investigations of U.S. intelligence agencies modeled after the Church Committee hearings of 1975.
The year 1975 was designated “the year of intelligence,” a season of inquiry into America’s spy agencies and their abuses.
Senator Frank Church (D-ID) headed a major Senate investigative committee, which exposed massive CIA and FBI criminality—ranging from its surveillance of Americans and efforts to destroy dissenting groups to its involvement in illegal drug testing and assassination.
As a consequence of these revelations, new reforms were enacted to try to reign in the so-called “deep state,” though these were relatively mild and gradually reversed.
Today, a new Senate investigation modeled after the Church Committee is urgently needed.
In the nearly 50 years since the Church Committee hearings were held, the intelligence agencies have grown exceedingly more powerful, and replicated the pattern of abuse prevalent in the immediate post-World War II era.
These abuses have included: a) running secret torture sites in the War on Terror; b) coordinating a killer drone program in which even U.S. citizens have been targeted without any judicial process; and c) orchestrating a fake political scandal—Russiagate—based on fraudulent dossiers, which helped condition the public to support a new Cold War with Russia and which was designed to bring down a sitting U.S. president.
The CIA and associated intelligence agencies have additionally: a) expanded an unprecedented surveillance apparatus that violates the U.S. Constitution; b) promoted disinformation in support of illegal wars in Libya and Syria among other countries; c) continued to meddle in foreign countries through the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and to support color revolutions designed to facilitate regime change in Eastern Europe and Central Asia; and d) helped coordinate Phoenix-style operations in Ukraine through liaison with the Ukrainian Secret Service (SBU) which routinely kidnaps civilians and executes them without trial.
Further investigation is also needed into the extent to which the CIA/FBI and related intelligence agencies have a) adopted COINTELPRO-style operations today designed to manipulate public opinion, co-opt protest movements and destroy the U.S. Left; b) perpetrated black-flag or terrorist attacks as part of a strategy of tension designed to sow fear in the public and advance legislation that violates civil liberties and the Bill of Rights; and c) aided presidential candidates such as George H.W. Bush (a former CIA director), Bill Clinton and Barack Obama among others, and in the process further tarnished the impression of the U.S. as a so-called democratic country.
Revelations of CIA Malfeasance
The Church Committee remains one of the U.S. Senate’s most significant investigations.
It was prompted by a rash of revelations in the media about CIA malfeasance, including: a) illegal domestic surveillance of Americans under Operation Chaos; b) the CIA’s support for torture in the infamous Phoenix Program in Vietnam; and c) its support for a fascist coup d’état in Chile in 1973—the extent of which was unknown until the Church Committee investigations.
CIA whistleblower Philip Agee, a co-founder of this Magazine, had also caused a stir in 1975 with the release of his tell-all book, Inside the Company, exposing CIA criminality in Latin America in the context of the political economy of U.S. imperialism.
“A New Kind of McCarthyism”
The Church Committee investigation was preceded by two additional investigations: The Rockefeller Commission, which examined the CIA’s domestic surveillance—carried out in violation of the CIA’s charter—and the Pike Committee, headed by New York Representative Otis Pike (D-NY), which concluded that the CIA had become “a private tool of the executive branch.”
Ron Dellums (D-CA), a member of the Pike committee, called for prohibition of all covert activity since they did not fit the democratic principles that the U.S. stood for.
The Pike Committee recommended a) the establishment of a permanent House committee on intelligence, b) the disclosure of the intelligence budget, and c) transparent financial accountability and restrictions on the transfer of funding between agencies and departments.
Among the fiercest critics of the Pike Committee report was Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s National Security Adviser and, later, Secretary of State, who claimed that the committee had “practiced a new kind of McCarthyism.” These were the bitter statements of an Executive Branch authority contemptuous of any investigation into its abuses of power.
Exposing Unlawful and Improper Conduct
The Church Committee held hearings in September and October 1975 after months-long investigations which were in part designed to educate the public about the “unlawful or improper conduct” of the intelligence community.
Between 1947 and 1975, the CIA had been placed under the authority of four different subcommittees which met only occasionally and were “often nothing more than a tool to silence the opponents of clandestine intelligence activity,” according to historian Dafydd Townley 
Former White House Counsel Clark Clifford, who had been part of the Truman administration when the CIA was created, said that, “for nearly thirty years the CIA had wheeled and dealed without supervision. Nobody has really interfered with them in Congress, the White House or the National Security Council. They just free-wheeled their way on and on.”
Though voting for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964, Frank Church emerged as a leading critic of the Vietnam War by the late 1960s and co-authored legislation trimming the president’s war powers. He received a strong rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action (ADA).
Fifty-one years old at the time of the hearings, Church’s career ambition was to chair the Senate Foreign Relations Committee like his political idol William Borah, an isolationist also from Idaho, who had supported U.S. neutrality in World War I; favored the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact outlawing war; and opposed U.S. imperialism in Central America in the 1920s.
The Economist of London characterized Church as “the scourge of immorality in undercover intelligence operations and the inquisitor of corrupt practices by American corporations abroad.” The latter characterization resulted from Church’s presiding over a the Senate Subcommittee on Multinational Corporations in the early 1970s, which exposed corrupt practices, including bribery, involving corporations such as Lockheed, and Arabian-American Oil Company (Aramco).
In chairing the Senate intelligence hearings, Church was motivated by his political ideal of a transparent and accountable democratic process. He feared that the theme of national security had been used “as a mitigating force to allow those in power to manipulate and circumvent the processes of American democracy.”
Church explained that the inquiry was designed to “safeguard the legitimate interests of the country, identify the abuses that had occurred, and to prevent the United States from slipping into the practices of a police state.”
Though the Church Committee staff did not always receive documents in a timely fashion, they enjoyed unprecedented access to materials that had never before been made public.
One limitation was that the committee allowed the intelligence agencies to predominantly shoulder the guilt for illegal activities that ultimately derived from the White House. CIA lawyers also stonewalled investigation into CIA crimes such as the assassination of Orlando Letelier, a former socialist government official in Chile gunned down in Washington D.C.
Several members of the Church Committee were extremely friendly to the CIA, including Barry Goldwater (R-AZ), who told NBC’s “Tomorrow Show” that he had “begged Church not to get into assassinations,” Howard Baker (R-TN), who helped cover up the Iran-Contra affair as Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff (1988) and was even offered the post of CIA director, and Walter Huddleston (D-KY), who in 1980 helped pass a bill limiting congressional oversight of the CIA.
The Church Committee’s most explosive revelations were about the CIA’s recruitment of underworld figures—including John Roselli, Sam Giancana, and Santo Trafficante—to try to assassinate Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro.
The Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations had also sanctioned the assassinations of Patrice Lumumba of Congo, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, and Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam whom the Kennedy administration merely wanted kidnapped and overthrown though not necessarily murdered—as he was.
The Church Committee, additionally, revealed that the Nixon administration had supported a 1970 Chilean plot to kidnap the head of the Chilean army, General René Schneider, who was shot to death with a machine gun that had been supplied to his executioners by the CIA.
Schneider was a constitutionalist who refused to support the CIA’s plot to overthrow Chile’s legally elected President Salvador Allende, a socialist whom President Richard Nixon branded “unacceptable to the United States.”
The Church committee concluded that the FBI and the Warren Commission were deficient in their investigation into the JFK assassination.
Further explosive was the Church Committee’s examination of the CIA’s unauthorized storage of toxic agents, including shellfish toxins, in large amounts that made it clear that the Agency was not interested in “purely defensive uses as it claimed.”
The eleven grams of poison kept by the CIA, despite a presidential order to destroy it all in 1970, was confirmed by CIA Director William Colby (1973-1976) to be part of a joint Army-CIA operation that had the potential to kill thousands of people.
The Church Committee further revealed the Agency’s development of a poison dart gun to be used for assassinating foreign leaders and other enemies of the state.
“Degrading to a Free Society”
The Church Committee blazed a trail for Edward Snowden by establishing public hearings on National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance, which was previously unknown to the U.S. public. Church had uncovered that the NSA used U.S. telecommunications corporations, such as ITT Communications, Western Union Telegraph Company and RCA Communications, to collect information on U.S. citizens in an operation codenamed Shamrock.
As part of its data collection efforts, the NSA worked alongside the FBI and CIA in maintaining a watch list that was first compiled under instructions from U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. The targets were U.S. citizens thought to be associated either with organized crime or communist Cuba.
After the operation expanded and became known as MINARET, the targets widened to include participants in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, and political activists like Jane Fonda and Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman.
Church sought the exposure of these programs because he saw the “incredible potential of an agency such as the NSA to impede the daily lives and freedoms of American citizens.”
The same held true for the FBI, whose counterintelligence operation (COINTELPRO) lasting from 1956 to 1971 aimed to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize political dissent within the United States.”
Targets of COINTELPRO ranged from the American Communist Party and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to the Black Panther Party and Ku Klux Klan (KKK).
Black-bag jobs were employed where FBI agents illegally broke into and entered homes to conduct warrantless surveillance, obtained IRS tax returns and prompted IRS investigations into individuals and organizations. FBI agents further spread rumors about informants in an attempt to sow divisions within radical groups, and planted provocateurs to discredit them or set up members for arrest.
In its final report, the Church Committee labeled such actions by the FBI as “indisputably degrading to a free society.”
One of the most shocking revelations concerned the FBI’s harassment of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was the target of “the most complete surveillance imaginable.”
Yet more dirty tricks had been planned under the Huston Plan—named after Nixon’s White House adviser Tom Huston—a coordinated attack on left-wing radicals which involved organized surveillance of protest groups, conducted largely illegally through break-ins, unwarranted surveillance, mail opening and electronic eavesdropping.
Winds of Change
After holding 126 committee meetings, 40 subcommittee hearings, interviewing some 800 witnesses in public and closed sessions, and combing through 110,000 documents, the Church Committee in its final report, published on April 29, 1976, concluded that U.S. intelligence agencies had “undermined the constitutional rights of citizens primarily because checks and balances designed by the framers of the Constitution to assure accountability have not been applied.”
Afterwards, in response to the wide public demand for reform, a permanent select committee on intelligence was set up whose aim was to facilitate greater transparency in the intelligence agencies and control overreach by the Executive Branch.
In 1976, the Clark Amendment was passed, barring CIA support for right-wing rebels in Angola, and, in 1978, Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which established specialized courts that had to authorize any surveillance operations, hence setting legal limitations on domestic intelligence gathering within the U.S.
During the 1976 presidential campaign, Jimmy Carter selected as his running mate Walter Mondale who was part of the Church Committee.
After Carter’s victory, he appointed as CIA director Stansfield Turner, who gutted some 20 percent of the CIA’s clandestine service (reportedly some 800 operatives) in the Halloween massacre.
The Empire Strikes Back
From the outset, the CIA and Executive Branch authorities had tried to discredit the Church Committee hearings.
They claimed that the committee’s activities were a national security risk that emboldened Moscow and resulted in the murder of CIA station chief Richard Welch on Christmas Eve 1975 in Athens.
Richard Cottrell, author of Gladio: NATO’s Dagger at the Heart of Europe: The Pentagon-Nazi-Mafia Terror Axis, suggests that Welch was a victim of “deep state machinations,” as he was never supplied with a bodyguard even though he had been outed as a CIA agent—in a country where the CIA was reviled for having supported a fascist coup.
The master of ceremonies at Welch’s carefully choreographed funeral at Arlington Cemetery, was, not coincidentally, Dick Cheney, who was then serving as President Gerald Ford’s chief of staff.
Cheney was a leading figure throughout his career in trying to reassert Executive Branch authority over Congress and trying to re-empower the CIA and other intelligence agencies.
The Church Committee for years functioned as a scapegoat for intelligence failures and was even blamed for the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The political culture of the 1980s and 1990s had grown extremely conservative, with fictional writers like Tom Clancy helping to rehabilitate the CIA and related agencies’ public image (Clancy’s novels chronicled the exploits of CIA agent extraordinaire Jack Ryan).
Clancy told Fox News after 9/11 that “the CIA was gutted by people on the political left who don’t like intelligence operations.” This was a veiled reference to the Church Committee hearing, which was a perennial whipping boy of the neoconservatives.
Push to Keep Church (Frank) and State Separate
As the political climate shifted in the 1980s, the reforms ushered in by the Church Committee were largely neutralized or reversed.
Church himself was defeated in Idaho’s 1980 Senate election after conservative political action groups poured in $275,000 on advertising against him. The Senate intelligence committees designed to oversee the CIA’s activity were staffed with politicians from both parties where more likely to rubber-stamp than challenge the CIA’s operations. The chairman was Barry Goldwater, and Vice Chairman, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY), whom Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff called “the biggest friend of the CIA the Agency ever had.”
Senator Joe Biden, who chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee in the early 1980s, admitted that the committee failed at its task of providing “vigilant legislative oversight over the intelligence activities of the United States to assure that such activities are in conformity with the Constitution and laws of the United States.”
Biden told The New York Times in 1982 that there was a “lack of prudent and consistent oversight…and a willingness to accept blanket findings and to give indefinite approval for conducting operations.”
In June 1982, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which mandated a $50,000 fine and ten years’ imprisonment for those who had access to classified information and publicly identified covert agents.
Former CIA agent John Stockwell said that the real purpose of the law was to “gain an important weapon for the CIA to use in silencing its critics.”
The law was part of a wave of post-Church Committee legislation that aimed to reaffirm the authority of the CIA. One bill, introduced by Senator Moynihan exempted the CIA from the Freedom of Information Act, while Senator Huddleston (D-KY) led passage of a bill supported by then-Senator Joe Biden limiting congressional oversight of the CIA
CIA veterans James “Jesus” Angleton and Ray Cline had set up two new pro-intelligence foundations in the late 1970s which pledged support for restoration of the CIA’s effectiveness while lamenting the damage done by revelations and criticism [by the Church Committee].
In a 1976 article entitled “On the Separation of Church and State,” Angleton had blamed Church for helping to “uncloth and disarm” the CIA. Angleton called Church a “muckracker…befuddled by the fantasies of détente,” which in Angleton’s view was a “sham” that emboldened Soviet proxies like Fidel Castro and resulted in more falling dominos.
Angleton and co-author Charles J.V. Murphy wrote that “the Senate would be well advised in the Bicentennial year to give heed to the wisdom of the Founding Fathers: to keep Church (Frank) and State (affairs of) separate. At least where life and death matters are concerned.”
Previously, Angleton asked: “Whose payroll is [Church] on: KGB? GRU [Soviet military intelligence]? Or perhaps the Cubans have recruited him?”
The Old Risk-Taking Spirit Returns
in the 1980s, the CIA ran wild in Central America where it was involved in illegal arms-smuggling and drug-running operations.
Numerous CIA functions began to be taken over by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a CIA offshoot founded in 1983, which supported dissidents and opposition media in countries that were geopolitical rivals of the U.S. or targeted for regime change.
President Bill Clinton (1993-2001) appointed future CIA Director Leon Panetta as his chief of staff and expanded America’s covert empire of overseas surveillance outposts while increasing the budget for secret intelligence spending.
Journalist James Risen reported that, after CIA Director George Tenet (1996-2004) won major budget increases and reopened stations in Africa, “the CIA’s old risk-taking spirit began to return.” From the halcyon pre-Church Committee hearing days, that is.
Rolling Over in His Grave
Frank Church, who died in 1984 at the age of 59, was by this time likely rolling over in his grave.
The aftermath of the 9/11 attacks resulted in an ever-greater reversal of Church’s legacy with the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act, which increased intelligence agencies’ ability to share information and lifted restrictions on communications surveillance.
Law enforcement officials under the USA PATRIOT Act were given broader mandates to fight counterfeiting, smuggling and money laundering schemes that funded terrorists, and the FBI was granted increased powers to access personal information such as medical and financial records.
Liberal acquiescence to the rising power of the “deep state” was apparent in their support for the CIA-run drone war and 2011 U.S.-NATO bombing of Libya which followed from a CIA disinformation campaign accusing Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi of feeding his soldiers viagra so they would carry out mass rapes.
The kind of liberals who had once supported Frank Church now rallied behind America’s first Black president, Barack Obama, who worked for a CIA-front after college and had likely family ties to the Agency, whose memoir had all the earmarks of a CIA disinformation pamphlet, and who according to his first CIA director, Leon Panetta, “gave the CIA everything it wanted.”
Liberal support for the “deep state” increased further during the presidency of Donald Trump, whom the Agency slandered as a Russian foreign agent and Manchurian candidate allegedly installed by Vladimir Putin.
The purpose of the Russiagate scandal was to manufacture animus toward Russia whose government the CIA wanted to overthrow, and to undermine Donald Trump whom the dominant forces in the CIA hated because of some of his idiosyncratic positions, his making peaceful overtures to some American enemies (North Korea, Russia) and because he was an embarrassment to the U.S.
Cleansing the Nation of Its Sins
With no political opposition or proper transparency or oversight, the CIA and related agencies like the NSA and FBI have since 1980 repeated the pattern of abuse that was prevalent in the period from 1947 to 1975.
The CIA’s abuses today are as bad or possibly even worse then ever—running a worldwide drone assassination program, for example, is something that the Dulles brothers could have only dreamed of.
The FBI and CIA furthermore appear to be far more brazen in interfering in U.S. politics, including by infiltrating left and right-wing groups with provocateurs, co-opting mainstream and alternative media, and covertly supporting political candidates.
Unfortunately, the prospects of a new Church Committee being established in today’s political climate are slim to none. The media and Congress have been totally corrupted, the Democratic Party and liberal establishment are hopelessly wedded to identity politics, and the “deep state” has become so powerful that no one dares to challenge it.
A citizens’ movement nevertheless can prevail against all odds if people from across the political spectrum—left and right—mobilize together. Certainly congressional oversight is not the be-all and end-all of profound social change and justice. Still, citizens should demand such investigations as a starting point and draw inspiration from Frank Church and the Church Committee. As efforts to cleanse the nation of its sins, the shining of light into dark places is sorely needed again and again.
- See Dafydd Townley, The Year of Intelligence in the United States: Public Opinion, National Security, and the 1975 Church Committee (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021). ↑
- Townley, The Year of Intelligence in the United States, 113. ↑
- Townley, The Year of Intelligence in the United States, 114. ↑
- Idem. ↑
- Townley, The Year of Intelligence in the United States, 115. ↑
- Townley, The Year of Intelligence in the United States, 134. ↑
- Idem. ↑
- Townley, The Year of Intelligence in the United States, 145. On Borah, see Robert James Maddox, William E. Borah and American Foreign Policy (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1970). Borah had led the prosecution of Big Bill Haywood, head of the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), on murder charges. Haywood was acquitted. ↑
- Townley, The Year of Intelligence in the United States, 145; James Angleton and Charles J. V Murphy, “On the Separation of Church and State,” American Cause, June 1976. ↑
- Townley, The Year of Intelligence in the United States, 155. ↑
- Idem. ↑
- A member of the Rockefeller financed Trilateral commission dedicated to sustaining U.S. global hegemony after Vietnam, Walter Mondale (D-MN) was also friendly to the CIA, having worked for Minnesota Governor Orville Freeman who headed a CIA front corporation, Business International Corporation (BIC), that Barack Obama worked for after graduating from Columbia University. ↑
- Townley, The Year of Intelligence in the United States, 184. ↑
- Townley, The Year of Intelligence in the United States, 178. ↑
- Townley, The Year of Intelligence in the United States, 177. ↑
- Townley, The Year of Intelligence in the United States, 187, 188. ↑
- Townley, The Year of Intelligence in the United States, 191. ↑
- Townley, The Year of Intelligence in the United States, 202. ↑
- Idem. ↑
- Townley, The Year of Intelligence in the United States, 198. ↑
- Idem. ↑
- Turner said that he wanted to focus on high-tech intelligence collection such as satellites. ↑
- Richard Cottrell, Gladio: NATO’s Dagger at the Heart of Europe: The Pentagon-Nazi-Mafia Terror Axis (Palm Desert, CA: Progressive Press, 2012). ↑
- Townley, The Year of Intelligence in the United States, 232. ↑
- Idem. ↑
- Ronald L. Hatzenbuehlert and Bert W. Marley, “Why Church Lost: A Preliminary Analysis of the Church-Symms Election of 1980,” Pacific Historical Review, 56, 1 (February 1987), 101; Anthony Frank, Destroying America: The CIA’s Quest to Control the Government (independently published, 2022). William F. Buckley, a suspected CIA asset, had advocated for Moynihan as a candidate on the Republican Party presidential ticket in 1980.
- Chris Agee and Jeremy Kuzmarov, “Joe Biden Wanted To Lock Up My Father, CIA Whistleblower Philip Agee—Just Like He Wants To Lock Up Edward Snowden And Julian Assange,” CovertAction Magazine, March 3, 2021, https://covertactionmagazine.com/2021/03/03/joe-biden-wanted-to-lock-up-my-father-cia-whistleblower-philip-agee-just-like-he-wants-to-lock-up-edward-snowden-and-julian-assange/↑
- Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils (Oakland: AK Press/Counterpunch, 2004), 12; James Ciment and Immanuel Ness, “NED and the Empire’s New Clothes,” https://thirdworldtraveler.com/NED/NED-EmpiresNewClothes.html; Susan B. Epstein, “National Endowment for Democracy: Policy and Funding Issues,” https://www.everycrsreport.com/files/19990816_96-222_c4d603ed41513187b32654f9aacd3050636c9712.pdf ↑
- James Risen, “The Nation; the Clinton Administration’s See No Evil CIA,” The New York Times, September 10, 2000; Frank, Destroying America, 150, 151. ↑
- See Jeremy Kuzmarov, Obama’s Unending Wars: Fronting the Foreign Policy of the Permanent Warfare State (Atlanta: Clarity Press, 2019). ↑
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About the Author
Jeremy Kuzmarov is Managing Editor of CovertAction Magazine.
He is the author of four books on U.S. foreign policy, including Obama’s Unending Wars (Clarity Press, 2019) and The Russians Are Coming, Again, with John Marciano (Monthly Review Press, 2018).
He can be reached at: [email protected].