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Profile: Church Committee
a.k.a. "United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities"
Church Committee was a participant or observer in the following events:
The NSA, working with British intelligence, begins secretly intercepting and reading millions of telegraph messages between US citizens and international senders and recipients. The clandestine program, called Operation Shamrock and part of a larger global surveillance network collectively known as Echelon (see April 4, 2001 and Before September 11, 2001), begins shortly after the end of World War II, and continues through 1975, when it is exposed by the “Church Committee,” the Senate investigation of illegal activities by US intelligence organizations (see April, 1976). [Telepolis, 7/25/2000] The program actually predates the NSA, originating with the Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA) then continuing when that turned into NSA (see 1952). [Pensito Review, 5/13/2006] The program operates in tandem with Project Minaret (see 1967-1975). Together, the two programs spy on both foreign sources and US citizens, especially those considered “unreliable,” such as civil rights leaders and antiwar protesters, and opposition figures such as politicians, diplomats, businessmen, trades union leaders, non-government organizations like Amnesty International, and senior officials of the Catholic Church. The NSA receives the cooperation of such telecommunications firms as Western Union, RCA, and ITT. [Telepolis, 7/25/2000] (Those companies are never required to reveal the extent of their involvement with Shamrock; on the recommendations of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and presidential chief of staff Dick Cheney, in 1975 President Ford extends executive privilege to those companies, precluding them from testifying before Congress.) [Pensito Review, 5/13/2006] In the 1960s, technological advances make it possible for computers to search for keywords in monitored messages instead of having human analysts read through all communications. In fact, the first global wide-area network, or WAN, is not the Internet, but the international network connecting signals intelligence stations and processing centers for US and British intelligence organizations, including the NSA, and making use of sophisticated satellite systems such as Milstar and Skynet. (The NSA also builds and maintains one of the world’s first e-mail networks, completely separate from public e-mail networks, and highly secret.) At the program’s height, it operates out of a front company in Lower Manhattan code-named LPMEDLEY, and intercepts 150,000 messages a month. In August 1975, NSA director Lieutenant General Lew Allen testifies to the House of Representatives’ investigation of US intelligence activities, the Pike Committee (see January 29, 1976), that “NSA systematically intercepts international communications, both voice and cable.” He also admits that “messages to and from American citizens have been picked up in the course of gathering foreign intelligence,” and acknowledges that the NSA uses “watch lists” of US citizens “to watch for foreign activity of reportable intelligence interest.” [Telepolis, 7/25/2000] The Church Committee’s final report will will call Shamrock “probably the largest government interception program affecting Americans ever undertaken.” [Church Committee, 4/23/1976] Shortly after the committee issues its report, the NSA terminates the program. Since 1978, the NSA and other US intelligence agencies have been restrained in their wiretapping and surveillance of US citizens by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (see 1978). Admiral Bobby Ray Inman, who will become the NSA’s director in 1977, and who testifies before the Church Committee as director of Naval Intelligence, will later say that he worked actively to help pass FISA: “I became convinced that for almost anything the country needed to do, you could get legislation to put it on a solid foundation. There was the comfort of going out and saying in speeches, ‘We don’t target US citizens, and what we do is authorized by a court.’” [Pensito Review, 5/13/2006] Shamrock is considered unconstitutional by many US lawmakers, and in 1976 the Justice Department investigates potential criminal offenses by the NSA surrounding Shamrock. Part of the report will be released in 1980; that report will confirm that the Shamrock data was used to further the illegal surveillance activities of US citizens as part of Minaret. [Telepolis, 7/25/2000]
After 9/11, the NSA will once again escalate its warrantless surveillance of US citizens, this time monitoring and tracking citizens’ phone calls and e-mails (see After September 11, 2001). It will also begin compiling an enormous database of citizens’ phone activities, creating a “data mine” of information on US citizens, ostensibly for anti-terrorism purposes (see October 2001).
US intelligence agencies, including the NSA, the CIA, and the FBI, run a clandestine and highly illegal surveillance operation called Project MINARET that uses “watch lists” to electronically and physically spy on “subversive” activities by civil rights and antiwar leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Jane Fonda, Malcolm X, Dr. Benjamin Spock, and Joan Baez—all members of Richard Nixon’s infamous “enemies list.” [Patrick S. Poole, 8/15/2000; Pensito Review, 5/13/2006] MINARET operates in tandem with a much more extensive electronic surveillance operation, SHAMROCK, run by the NSA (see 1945-1975). Almost 6,000 foreigners and nearly 1,700 organizations and US citizens are monitored as part of MINARET. In August 1975, NSA director Lew Allen testifies before the Senate’s investigative commission on US intelligence activities, the Church Committee (see April, 1976), that the NSA has issued over 3,900 reports on the US citizens on MINARET’s watch lists, and the NSA’s Office of Security Services has maintained reports on at least 75,000 citizens between 1952 and 1975, reports that later became part of MINARET’s operations. MINARET, like SHAMROCK, will be terminated shortly after the Church Committee goes public with its information about the illegal surveillance program. [Bamford, 1983; Pensito Review, 5/13/2006]
Vice President Nelson Rockefeller (see December 19, 1974 and After) is instrumental in keeping Senate Democrats from finding out too much about the intelligence community’s excesses. When the New York Times reveals the existence of a decades-old illegal domestic surveillance program run by the CIA (see December 21, 1974), President Ford heads off calls from Democrats to investigate the program by appointing the “Rockefeller Commission” to investigate in the Democrats’ stead. Senate Democrats, unimpressed with the idea, create the Church Committee to investigate the intelligence community (see April, 1976). Rockefeller is adept at keeping critical documents out of the hands of the Church Committee and the press. When Senator Frank Church asks for materials from the White House, he is told that the Rockefeller Commission has them; when he asks Rockefeller for the papers, he is told that he cannot have them because only the president can authorize access. One Church aide later calls Rockefeller “absolutely brilliant” in denying them access in a friendly manner. “He winked and smiled and said, ‘Gee, I want to help you but, of course I can’t—not until we’ve finished our work and the president approves it,’” the aide recalls. Senator John Tower (R-TX), the vice chairman of the committee, will later reflect, “We were very skillfully finessed.” But even Rockefeller, who has his own history of involvement with the CIA, is taken aback at the excesses of the CIA, particularly its history of assassinating foreign leaders. Rockefeller will eventually turn that information over to the Church Committee, giving that body some of the most explosive evidence as yet made public against the agency. [US Senate, 7/7/2007]
Bella Abzug. [Source: Spartacus Educational]Staffers from the Church Committee (see April, 1976), slated with investigating illegal surveillance operations conducted by the US intelligence community, approach the NSA for information about Operation Shamrock (see 1945-1975). The NSA ostensibly closes Shamrock down the very same day the committee staffers ask about the program. Though the Church Committee focuses on a relatively narrow review of international cables, the Pike Committee in the House (see January 29, 1976) is much more far-ranging. The Pike Committee tries and fails to subpoena AT&T, which along with Western Union collaborated with the government in allowing the NSA to monitor international communications to and from the US. The government protects AT&T by declaring it “an agent of the United States acting under contract with the Executive Branch.” A corollary House subcommittee investigation led by Bella Abzug (D-NY)—who believes that Operation Shamrock continues under a different name—leads to further pressure on Congress to pass a legislative remedy. The Ford administration’s counterattack is given considerable assistance by a young lawyer at the Justice Department named Antonin Scalia. The head of the Office of Legal Counsel, Scalia’s arguments in favor of continued warrantless surveillance and the unrestricted rights and powers of the executive branch—opposed by, among others, Scalia’s boss, Attorney General Edward Levi—do not win out this time; Ford’s successor, Jimmy Carter, ultimately signs into law the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (see 1978). But Scalia’s incisive arguments win the attention of powerful Ford officials, particularly Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld and Rumsfeld’s assistant, Dick Cheney. [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 36-37] Scalia will become a Supreme Court Justice in 1986 (see September 26, 1986).
Entity Tags: Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Church Committee, Bella Abzug, Antonin Scalia, AT&T, Donald Rumsfeld, Ford administration, National Security Agency, Western Union, James Earl “Jimmy” Carter, Jr., Edward Levi, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Pike Committee, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, US Department of Justice
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh publishes an explosive story in the New York Times, revealing that US submarines are tapping into Soviet communications cables inside the USSR’s three-mile territorial limit. Hersh notes that his inside sources gave him the information in hopes that it would modify administration policy: they believe that using submarines in this manner violates the spirit of detente and is more risky than using satellites to garner similar information. The reaction inside both the Pentagon and the White House is predictably agitated. Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld, traveling in Europe with President Ford, delegates his deputy Dick Cheney to formulate the administration’s response. Cheney goes farther than most administration officials would have predicted. He calls a meeting with Attorney General Edward Levi and White House counsel Philip Buchan to discuss options. Cheney’s first thought is to either engineer a burglary of Hersh’s home to find classified documents, or to obtain search warrants and have Hersh’s home legally ransacked. He also considers having a grand jury indict Hersh and the Times over their publication of classified information. “Will we get hit with violating the 1st amendment to the constitution[?]” Cheney writes in his notes of the discussion. Levi manages to rein in Cheney; since the leak and the story do not endanger the spying operations, the White House ultimately decides to let the matter drop rather than draw further attention to it. Interestingly, Cheney has other strings to his bow; he writes in his notes: “Can we take advantage of [the leak] to bolster our position on the Church committee investigation (see April, 1976)? To point out the need for limits on the scope of the investigation?” [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 34-35]
Entity Tags: Seymour Hersh, US Department of Defense, Ford administration, Edward Levi, Donald Rumsfeld, Church Committee, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Philip Buchan, New York Times, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
Representative Otis Pike. [Source: Spartacus Educational]A House of Representatives committee, popularly known as the Pike Committee after its chairman, Otis Pike (D-NY), investigates questionable US intelligence activities. The committee operates in tandem with the Senate’s investigation of US intelligence activities, the Church Committee (see April, 1976). Pike, a decorated World War II veteran, runs a more aggressive—some say partisan—investigation than the more deliberate and politically balanced Church Committee, and receives even less cooperation from the White House than does the Church investigation. After a contentious year-long investigation marred by inflammatory accusations and charges from both sides, Pike refuses demands from the CIA to redact huge portions of the report, resulting in an accusation from CIA legal counsel Mitchell Rogovin that the report is an “unrelenting indictment couched in biased, pejorative and factually erroneous terms.” Rogovin also tells the committee’s staff director, Searle Field, “Pike will pay for this, you wait and see…. There will be a political retaliation…. We will destroy him for this.” (It is hard to know exactly what retaliation will be carried out against Pike, who will resign from Congress in 1978.)
Battle to Release Report - On January 23, 1976, the investigative committee voted along party lines to release the report unredacted, sparking a tremendous outcry among Republicans, who are joined by the White House and CIA Director William Colby in an effort to suppress the report altogether. On January 26, the committee’s ranking Republican, Robert McCory, makes a speech saying that the report, if released, would endanger national security. On January 29, the House votes 246 to 124 not to release the report until it “has been certified by the President as not containing information which would adversely affect the intelligence activities of the CIA.” A furious Pike retorts, “The House just voted not to release a document it had not read. Our committee voted to release a document it had read.” Pike threatens not to release the report at all because “a report on the CIA in which the CIA would do the final rewrite would be a lie.” The report will never be released, though large sections of it will be leaked within days to reporter Daniel Schorr of the Village Voice, and printed in that newspaper. Schorr himself will be suspended from his position with CBS News and investigated by the House Ethics Committee (Schorr will refuse to disclose his source, and the committee will eventually decide, on a 6-5 vote, not to bring contempt of Congress charges against him). [Spartacus Educational, 2/16/2006] The New York Times will follow suit and print large portions of the report as well. The committee was led by liberal Democrats such as Pike and Ron Dellums (D-CA), who said even before the committee first met, “I think this committee ought to come down hard and clear on the side of stopping any intelligence agency in this country from utilizing, corrupting, and prostituting the media, the church, and our educational system.” The entire investigation is marred by a lack of cooperation from the White House and the CIA. [Gerald K. Haines, 1/20/2003]
Final Draft Accuses White House, CIA of 'Stonewalling,' Deception - The final draft of the report says that the cooperation from both entities was “virtually nonexistent,” and accuses both of practicing “foot dragging, stonewalling, and deception” in their responses to committee requests for information. CIA archivist and historian Gerald Haines will later write that the committee was thoroughly deceived by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who officially cooperated with the committee but, according to Haines, actually “worked hard to undermine its investigations and to stonewall the release of documents to it.” [Spartacus Educational, 2/16/2006] The final report accuses White House officials of only releasing the information it wanted to provide and ignoring other requests entirely. One committee member says that trying to get information out of Colby and other CIA officials was like “pulling teeth.” For his part, Colby considers Pike a “jackass” and calls his staff “a ragtag, immature, and publicity-seeking group.” The committee is particularly unsuccessful in obtaining information about the CIA’s budget and expenditures, and in its final report, observes that oversight of the CIA budget is virtually nonexistent. Its report is harsh in its judgments of the CIA’s effectiveness in a number of foreign conflicts, including the 1973 Mideast war, the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam, the 1974 coups in Cyprus and Portugal, the 1974 testing of a nuclear device by India, and the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union, all of which the CIA either got wrong or failed to predict. The CIA absolutely refused to provide any real information to either committee about its involvement in, among other foreign escapades, its attempt to influence the 1972 elections in Italy, covert actions in Angola, and covert aid to Iraqi Kurds from 1972 through 1975. The committee found that covert actions “were irregularly approved, sloppily implemented, and, at times, had been forced on a reluctant CIA by the President and his national security advisers.” Indeed, the Pike Committee’s final report lays more blame on the White House than the CIA for its illegal actions, with Pike noting that “the CIA does not go galloping off conducting operations by itself…. The major things which are done are not done unilaterally by the CIA without approval from higher up the line.… We did find evidence, upon evidence, upon evidence where the CIA said: ‘No, don’t do it.’ The State Department or the White House said, ‘We’re going to do it.’ The CIA was much more professional and had a far deeper reading on the down-the-road implications of some immediately popular act than the executive branch or administration officials.… The CIA never did anything the White House didn’t want. Sometimes they didn’t want to do what they did.” [Gerald K. Haines, 1/20/2003]
Entity Tags: William Colby, Village Voice, Otis G. Pike, Robert McCory, Pike Committee, US Department of State, New York Times, Mitchell Rogovin, Ron Dellums, House Ethics Committee, Gerald Haines, Church Committee, Searle Field, Daniel Schorr, Henry A. Kissinger, Central Intelligence Agency, CBS News
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
Senator Frank Church. [Source: Wally McNamee / Corbis]A Senate committee tasked to investigate the activities of US intelligence organizations finds a plethora of abuses and criminal behaviors, and recommends strict legal restraints and firm Congressional oversight. The “Church Committee,” chaired by Senator Frank Church (D-ID), a former Army intelligence officer with a strong understanding of the necessity for intelligence-gathering, notes in its final report that the CIA in particular had been overly cooperative with the Nixon administration in spying on US citizens for political purposes (see December 21, 1974); US intelligence agencies had also gone beyond the law in assassination attempts on foreign government officials in, among other places, Africa, Latin America, and Vietnam. Church himself accused the CIA of providing the White House with what, in essence, is a “private army,” outside of Congressional oversight and control, and called the CIA a “rogue elephant rampaging out of control.” The committee will reveal the existence of hitherto-unsuspected operations such as HT Lingual, which had CIA agents secretly opening and reading US citizens’ international mail, and other operations which included secret, unauthorized wiretaps, dossier compilations, and even medical experiments. For himself, Church, the former intelligence officer, concluded that the CIA should conduct covert operations only “in a national emergency or in cases where intervention is clearly in tune with our traditional principles,” and restrain the CIA from intervening in the affairs of third-world nations without oversight or consequence. CIA director William Colby is somewhat of an unlikely ally to Church; although he does not fully cooperate with either the Church or Pike commissions, he feels that the CIA’s image is badly in need of rehabilitation. Indeed, Colby later writes, “I believed that Congress was within its constitutional rights to undertake a long-overdue and thoroughgoing review of the agency and the intelligence community. I did not share the view that intelligence was solely a function of the Executive Branch and must be protected from Congressional prying. Quite the contrary.” Conservatives later blame the Church Commission for “betray[ing] CIA agents and operations,” in the words of American Spectator editor R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr, referencing the 1975 assassination of CIA station chief Richard Welch in Greece. The chief counsel of the Church Committee accuses CIA defenders and other conservatives of “danc[ing] on the grave of Richard Welch in the most cynical way.” It is documented fact that the Church Commission exposed no agents and no operations, and compromised no sources; even Colby’s successor, George H.W. Bush, later admits that Welch’s death had nothing to do with the Church Committee. (In 1980, Church will lose re-election to the Senate in part because of accusations of his committee’s responsibility for Welch’s death by his Republican opponent, Jim McClure.) [American Prospect, 11/5/2001; History Matters Archive, 3/27/2002; Assassination Archives and Research Center, 11/23/2002]
Final Report Excoriates CIA - The Committee’s final report concludes, “Domestic intelligence activity has threatened and undermined the Constitutional rights of Americans to free speech, association and privacy. It has done so primarily because the Constitutional system for checking abuse of power has not been applied.” The report is particularly critical of the CIA’s successful, and clandestine, manipulation of the US media. It observes: “The CIA currently maintains a network of several hundred foreign individuals around the world who provide intelligence for the CIA and at times attempt to influence opinion through the use of covert propaganda. These individuals provide the CIA with direct access to a large number of newspapers and periodicals, scores of press services and news agencies, radio and television stations, commercial book publishers, and other foreign media outlets.” The report identifies over 50 US journalists directly employed by the CIA, along with many others who were affiliated and paid by the CIA, and reveals the CIA’s policy to have “their” journalists and authors publish CIA-approved information, and disinformation, overseas in order to get that material disseminated in the United States. The report quotes the CIA’s Chief of the Covert Action Staff as writing, “Get books published or distributed abroad without revealing any US influence, by covertly subsidizing foreign publicans or booksellers.…Get books published for operational reasons, regardless of commercial viability.…The advantage of our direct contact with the author is that we can acquaint him in great detail with our intentions; that we can provide him with whatever material we want him to include and that we can check the manuscript at every stage…. [The agency] must make sure the actual manuscript will correspond with our operational and propagandistic intention.” The report finds that over 1,000 books were either published, subsidized, or sponsored by the CIA by the end of 1967; all of these books were published in the US either in their original form or excerpted in US magazines and newspapers. “In examining the CIA’s past and present use of the US media,” the report observes, “the Committee finds two reasons for concern. The first is the potential, inherent in covert media operations, for manipulating or incidentally misleading the American public. The second is the damage to the credibility and independence of a free press which may be caused by covert relationships with the US journalists and media organizations.”
CIA Withheld Info on Kennedy Assassination, Castro Plots, King Surveillance - The committee also finds that the CIA withheld critical information about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy from the Warren Commission, information about government assassination plots against Fidel Castro of Cuba (see, e.g., November 20, 1975, Early 1961-June 1965, March 1960-August 1960, and Early 1963); and that the FBI had conducted a counter-intelligence program (COINTELPRO) against Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Mafia boss Sam Giancana was slated to testify before the committee about his organization’s ties to the CIA, but before he could testify, he was murdered in his home—including having six bullet wounds in a circle around his mouth. Another committee witness, union leader Jimmy Hoffa, disappeared before he could testify. Hoffa’s body has never been found. Mafia hitman Johnny Roselli was murdered before he could testify before the committee: in September 1976, the Washington Post will print excerpts from Roselli’s last interview, with journalist Jack Anderson, before his death; Anderson will write, “When [Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey] Oswald was picked up, the underworld conspirators feared he would crack and disclose information that might lead to them. This almost certainly would have brought a massive US crackdown on the Mafia. So Jack Ruby was ordered to eliminate Oswald.” (Anderson’s contention has not been proven.) The murders of Giancana and Roselli, and the disappearance and apparent murder of Hoffa, will lead to an inconclusive investigation by the House of the assassinations of Kennedy and King. [Spartacus Educational, 12/18/2002]
Leads to FISA - The findings of the Church Committee will inspire the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) (see 1978), and the standing committees on intelligence in the House and Senate. [Assassination Archives and Research Center, 11/23/2002]
Simultaneous Investigation in House - The Church Committee operates alongside another investigative body in the House of Representatives, the Pike Committee (see January 29, 1976).
Church Committee Smeared After 9/11 - After the 9/11 attacks, conservative critics will once again bash the Church Committee; former Secretary of State James Baker will say within hours of the attacks that the Church report had caused the US to “unilaterally disarm in terms of our intelligence capabilities,” a sentiment echoed by the editorial writers of the Wall Street Journal, who will observe that the opening of the Church hearings was “the moment that our nation moved from an intelligence to anti-intelligence footing.” Perhaps the harshest criticism will come from conservative novelist and military historian Tom Clancy, who will say, “The CIA was gutted by people on the political left who don’t like intelligence operations. And as a result of that, as an indirect result of that, we’ve lost 5,000 citizens last week.” [Gerald K. Haines, 1/20/2003]
Entity Tags: Washington Post, Tom Clancy, William Colby, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, R. Emmett Tyrrell, Richard M. Nixon, HT Lingual, George Herbert Walker Bush, Jack Anderson, Frank Church, Church Committee, Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Sam Giancana, Jack Ruby, James R. Hoffa, Pike Committee, Martin Luther King, Jr., James A. Baker, Lee Harvey Oswald, John F. Kennedy, Jim McClure, Johnny Roselli, Warren Commission
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
Following the revelations of the Church Committee’s investigation into the excesses of the CIA (see April, 1976), and the equally revealing New York Times article documenting the CIA’s history of domestic surveillance against US citizens for political purposes (see December 21, 1974), Congress passes the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). In essence, FISA prohibits physical and electronic surveillance against US citizens except in certain circumstances affecting national security, under certain guidelines and restrictions, with court warrants issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), operating within the Department of Justice as well as with criminal warrants. FISA restricts any surveillance of US citizens (including US corporations and permanent foreign residents) to those suspected of having contact with “foreign powers” and terrorist organizations. FISA gives a certain amount of leeway for such surveillance operations, requiring that the administration submit its evidence for warrantless surveillance to FISC within 24 hours of its onset and keeping the procedures and decisions of FISC secret from the public. [Electronic Frontier Foundation, 9/27/2001; Legal Information Institute, 11/30/2004] On September 14, 2001, Congress will pass a revision of FISA that extends the time period for warrantless surveillance to 72 hours. The revision, part of the Intelligence Authorization Act of 2002, will also lower the standard for the issuance of wiretap warrants and make legal “John Doe,” or generic, warrants that can be used without naming a particular target. FISA revisions will also expand the bounds of the technologies available to the government for electronic and physical surveillance, and broaden the definitions of who can legally be monitored. [US Senate, 9/14/2001; Senator Jane Harman, 2/1/2006]
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