The Church Committee at 40

May 29, 2015– It has been four decades since the “Year of Intelligence,” 1975, when United States intelligence agencies were investigated in depth by a presidential blue ribbon panel (the Rockefeller Commission), the Senate’s predecessors to today’s oversight unit (the Church Committee) and a House of Representatives investigative panel (the Pike Committee). Nothing like this has happened since. The work of the Church Committee has been the most lasting. Denizens of the secret world mostly recognize that investigation, where, increasingly, even they profess not to have heard of the others. After four decades what is there to remember?

A lot, according to former members of the committee, who assembled in Washington yesterday under the auspices of the Brennan Center for Justice of New York University. Heading the group was Walter F. Mondale, who went from his experience with Church to become the 42nd Vice-President of the United States; and former U.S. Senator Gary Hart, another member of the committee, along with its chief counsel, Frederick A. O. Schwarz, Jr. Also on the podium was Loch K. Johnson, a Church committee staffer. A variety of other members of the committee staff were in the audience. The event proved a combination of reunion and clarion call.

The Church Committee investigation has been mentioned many times in this space and it was instructive to see that members and staff have watched recent developments in U.S. security policy with increasing concern. Vice-President Mondale says that he is a strong supporter of President Barack Obama and admires him very much, but that what Obama has done with U.S. intelligence has been disastrous. The government’s excessive reliance on legal arguments hinged upon so-called “state secrets” is deplorable. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC)–which the Church Committee was instrumental in the creation of–has gone far beyond its intended role as a magistrate to become a court of general jurisdiction. Now in competition with other federal courts, and serving the intelligence agencies as their secret, special court with no outside interference, the FISC has become a runaway locomotive.

Senator Hart commented that the historical question is why no inquiry like that of the Church Committee had previously been carried out. “It was a hugely disillusioning experience,” he remarked. “There were dark sewers beneath the city on the hill” And the committee had to fight for every scrap of evidence the intelligence agencies eventually allowed them to see.

Outside the formal sessions Church committee veterans to a man (no women staff were at the event unfortunately) were appalled at the breakdown of legislative oversight of U.S. intelligence that has since occurred.

Under the rubric of strengthening intelligence oversight, eighteen of the Church committee veterans, including both Mondale and Hart, signed on to a Brennan Center policy paper that envisions using the Church committee experience as a model for a new investigation of the U.S. intelligence agencies. Their idea is similar to, although less comprehensive than, the inquiry I laid out in my book The Family Jewels and fleshed out in the paperback edition of that work.

It is increasingly clear that public concern over the excesses of our security services is growing. In my view the intelligence agencies actually have a great deal to gain from a new-type Church committee which examines their activities and is then able to reform them and to  pronounce them above board.

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