A New History of the Church Committee
Yawns greeted the panel's formation, writes James Risen in his scintillating new book, because the country was "exhausted by Watergate." But its fiery revelations led to monumental reforms.
LOOKING BACK SOME 50 YEARS NOW, it’s hard to imagine how a Senate investigation into CIA assassination plots, coups d’etat, domestic spying, covert alliances with the Mafia and mind-control drug testing on countless unwitting Americans would draw little interest from the press and public.
But that’s the way it was in the winter of 1975, when the U.S. Senate created a committee under the leadership of Frank Church of Idaho to look into a wide range of reported and rumored unsavory activities by the CIA.
Church, a Democrat, initially thought his investigation would be “Watergate 2.0,” the hearings that led to the downfall of President Richard Nixon, the investigative reporter and author James Risen tells me in a new SpyTalk podcast interview. But the country was ”exhausted by Watergate” and lacked enthusiasm for yet another lengthy probe, he said.
Church knew that he had to have a boffo opening to grab the public’s attention—and he pulled it off, displaying a poison dart gun from the CIA’s assassinations armory in his opening hearing. The photo made front pages around the world. Other revelations ensued like pennies spilling from a cracked piggy bank, Risen recounts in his new book, The Last Honest Man: The CIA, the Mafia, and the Kennedys—and One Senator’s Fight to Save Democracy.
“As soon as they got into investigating this CIA, they found that the abuses went way back before Nixon,” Risen explained on the SpyTalk podcast. “They went back to the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations and then the Johnson Administration. And so they began to investigate long standing abuses like the assassinations of foreign leaders.”
It's fair to say that without Frank Church, Congress never would have established special committees to conduct oversight of U.S. intelligence operations and analysis. Other reforms followed, like the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (to police overseas corporate bribery) and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, the much maligned statute that aims to control government surveillance.
“It's a deeply flawed law, as everyone knows today. But it didn't exist prior to the Church Committee,” Risen points out. “There were no rules on eavesdropping for national security purposes…” Now there are, no matter how often they are violated.
You can listen to the whole SpyTalk interview here on Apple, or wherever you get your podcasts.
As most SpyTalk readers would know, Risen is well positioned to chronicle the before, during and after of the Church Committee. A longtime reporter with the Los Angeles Times and later New York Times, he won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for his stories about President George W. Bush's warrantless wiretapping program. He was a member of The New York Times reporting team that won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting for coverage of the September 11th attacks and terrorism. He was also a member of The New York Times reporting team that was a finalist for the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting, for its coverage of the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. Among his best selling books are State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush administration, and Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War. Today he is The Intercept's Senior National Security Correspondent, based in Washington, D.C.
You can listen to my Risen interview, and all the SpyTalk podcasts over the past two years, here.
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This is reminding me of what we seem to be building towards in these congressional UAP hearings now that they’ve passed the whistleblower laws. I bring it up here because a number of the protagonists are a) from the intelligence community and b) are using their will and resources but also their training to help Sen Gilibrand uncover what’s been happening. I’m thinking of Lue Elizondo (cointel background) and Chris Mellon (frmr Assist. Director of Defense for Intelligence), both of whom I suspect history will regard quite favorably once all of this and their roles in it comes to light.
I ought to read more and watch the interview. In 1973 I was with CIA in Vietnam, in a Province, and all this seemed very far away. We had more immediate concerns and wanted to do accurate reporting of what was happening in Vietnam. And it was interesting.