Hawkish conservatives today must secretly reserve a
special affection for the late Idaho Democrat Frank Church; after all, he
provided them with the cudgel they've since used to batter liberal critics of the
U.S. intelligence community. As chair of the Senate's 1975 intelligence
investigation, Church famously characterized the Central Intelligence Agency as a
"rogue elephant rampaging out of control." He was struggling to describe the lack
of any clear presidential authorization for the agency's bungled assassination
attempts against Fidel Castro and other foreign leaders. But to Church's critics,
the "rogue elephant" comment came to epitomize the barnstorming liberal senator's
hopelessly naive approach to intelligence. What president, they asked, would
leave behind a written assassination order? Who was Church kidding? And how dare
the senator--gearing up to run for president--grandstand at the expense of
In the wake of September 11, we've been hearing "rogue elephant"
again. The hawks have flung blame all around for the massive intelligence failure
that permitted the September attacks, targeting Bill Clinton, CIA Director George
Tenet, and the defenseless Frank Church. September 11 was Church's fault, these
critics explain, because his bipartisan committee--which probed not just CIA
assassination plots but covert operations, domestic-mail-intercept programs, the
Federal Bureau of Investigation's hounding of Martin Luther King, Jr., and other
abuses--broke the spirit of the nation's intelligence community by exposing its
The Church bashing began the day of the World Trade Center massacre on ABC,
when former Secretary of State James Baker said that Church's hearings had caused
us to "unilaterally disarm in terms of our intelligence capabilities." The
allegation was soon repeated by Republican Senator Christopher "Kit" Bond of
Missouri and numerous conservative commentators. The Wall Street Journal
editorial page called the opening of Church's public hearings "the moment
that our nation moved from an intelligence to anti-intelligence footing." And the
spy-mongering novelist Tom Clancy attacked Church on Fox News's O'Reilly
Factor: "The CIA was gutted by people on the political left who don't like
intelligence operations," he said. "And as a result of that, as an indirect
result of that, we've lost 5,000 citizens last week."
On its face, the notion that anything that happened 26 years ago could explain
intelligence lapses today seems implausible. After all, The Washington Post
recently revealed a 1999 CIA plot to train Pakistani intelligence operatives to
go in and nab Osama bin Laden. The covert plan failed not because of the historic
gutlessness of U.S. liberals but because of a military coup led by General Pervez
Musharraf (now the president of Pakistan), who called it off. The Clinton
administration was behind the CIA plan all the way.
Church--caricatured as the quintessential dovish liberal--gets accused of
devaluing and misunderstanding intelligence, even though he was himself an army
intelligence officer in World War II. All these innuendos threaten to obscure the
core lessons of Church's investigation. According to the Washington State
University historian Leroy Ashby, coauthor (with Rod Gramer) of the Church
biography Fighting the Odds, the committee provided the American public with
"a kind of education about the hidden side of government. And that hidden side
very much affected what happened abroad, with unintended consequences." At a time
when we will need to strengthen and rely on the CIA, the FBI, and the Pentagon
intelligence agencies like never before, we can't afford to lose this sobering
It's important today to recall that the object of much of the Church
committee's investigation were the abuses the CIA and other intelligence agencies
inflicted on Americans here at home. They included the Huston Plan, a proposal to
have the agencies infiltrate and disrupt student and other dissenting
organizations; Operation HT Lingual, in which the CIA had for 20 years been
opening the mail that Americans (including Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey) had
sent to the Soviet bloc; and other operations that kept files, ran wiretaps, and
performed medical experiments on U.S. citizens.
Although the CIA had ballooned to the size of the State
Department by the late 1950s, prior to 1975 the U.S. intelligence community had
never undergone significant congressional scrutiny. The laissez-faire attitude was
encapsulated by a remark to Church from the Republican Senator Leverett
Saltonstall of Massachusetts: "It's better for gentlemen not to know what's going
on." But after a 1974 New York Times series by Seymour Hersh revealed that
the CIA had conducted "massive" illegal spying activities against American
antiwar protesters and dissidents, Congress and the executive branch convulsed
into action. Three separate bodies were formed to investigate the intelligence
services: Church's committee in the Senate, a committee headed by New York
Democrat Otis Pike in the House of Representatives, and a commission led by Vice
President Nelson Rockefeller.
The Watergate hearings lingered in recent memory, and Church was in
some sense the congressional equivalent of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The
amount of information amassed by his committee of 11 senators and more than 100
staff members was staggering: 800 interviews, 110,000 pages of documents. As the
University of Georgia political scientist and Church-committee staffer Loch K.
Johnson describes in his 1985 account Season of Inquiry, the committee's
reports added up to "a stack of green-covered Senate publications standing over
two feet high and numbering several thousand pages." And as the embarrassing
revelations tumbled out--that the CIA had kept lethal shellfish poisons despite an
order from President Nixon to destroy them, for example, or that it had
administered LSD to "unwitting" human subjects--the Ford administration dug in
its heels. Indeed, the rhetoric of "dismantling" and "crippling" the CIA comes
from ur-Realpolitickers Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger.
Actually, the Church committee was much more moderate in its dealings with the
executive branch than the Pike committee was. After numerous clashes with the
administration over classified documents, Pike's committee was finally overruled by
the full House of Representatives and saw its report censored. The Rockefeller
Commission, meanwhile, was too close to Ford and Kissinger and failed to delve
deeply into the CIA's assassination attempts, thus leaving that task to the
Church committee. It was Church's ability to walk a middle road in his inquiry
that made him particularly effective--though it also, perhaps, ensured that he
would be hated.
Moreover, it is a myth that Church somehow opposed covert operations. He
simply believed that they should be conducted only "in a national emergency or in
cases where intervention is clearly in tune with our traditional principles."
Church wanted to get the CIA out of the affairs of third-world nations and back
to its primary purpose: gathering intelligence. This push both to unearth the
agency's skeletons and to redirect its energies was welcomed by the CIA's
then-Director William Colby, who himself hoped to clean house in an attempt to
rehabilitate the agency's image. As Colby later wrote:
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.
Nevertheless, some CIA officers in the Directorate of Operations (DO)
never forgave Colby for exposing their "crown jewels" to Church, explains Melvin
Goodman, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and former CIA
Soviet analyst. "When Colby died, I didn't see one DO luminary attend that
funeral," remembers Goodman. "There was just tremendous contempt for him. They
basically put out the word that Church was the turning point." Because of Church,
the CIA's freewheeling cowboy era was over.
Probably the most malicious attack on Church suggests that his
committee's activities compromised CIA operatives overseas. Following September
11, for example, the American Spectator editor R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., wrote that
Church's hearings "betrayed CIA agents and operations." This intimation has its
roots in Christmas Day, 1975, when Richard Skeffington Welch, the CIA station
chief in Greece, was assassinated. Welch's death was instantly used against the
Church committee for political gain. Many CIA agents killed in the line of duty
are memorialized only by anonymous stars in the lobby of the agency's
headquarters in Langley, Virginia--but NBC's Today Show covered the airlifting of
Welch's body back to the United States, and President Ford attended his funeral
with various luminaries. The chief counsel of the Church committee remarked that
intelligence defenders "danced on the grave of Richard Welch in the most cynical
way." Following Welch's assassination, Church received death threats and letters
calling him a murderer.
The truth is that Church stuck to his promise to Colby that there
would be "no dismantling and no exposing of agents to danger. No sources will be
compromised." The committee made sure that it received no names of active agents,
so that none could be revealed. Colby's successor as CIA director, George H.W.
Bush, fully admitted that Welch's death had nothing to do with the investigation.
In fact, Welch had been warned not to live in the Athens home that his CIA
predecessors had occupied, because it was "notorious." And the Greek media had
identified him as a CIA officer. Yet when Church ran for re-election in 1980,
Republican Senator Jim McClure of Idaho publicly blamed him for Welch's death.
Church lost by just over 4,000 votes.
The chief legacies of the Church committee--besides President Ford's
executive order banning political assassinations, a key policy change resulting
from the 1975 CIA probes--were the standing House and Senate intelligence
committees formed after the investigation. How such oversight could have
hamstrung the CIA is not clear. If anything, the committees were too lax with
William Casey, the Reagan-era CIA director who easily misled them about the
agency's dangerous mining of harbors in Nicaragua.
"There were not a great many things that Church took off the table," explains
Frederick Hitz, director of the Project on International Intelligence at
Princeton's Center for International Studies, who was inspector general of the
CIA during the elder Bush's administration. Even if Church's investigation led to
a "down period" for CIA activities, Hitz observes, "remember the Reagan period,
in which Bill Casey came in and, if you will, sort of turned the spigots on
again." The CIA saw a 50 percent increase in appropriations in the first three
Reagan budgets. And the Church-inspired congressional oversight structure was
obviously not sufficient to head off the Iran-contra affair.
In fact, the backlash over Welch's death prevented many Church-committee
recommendations, such as a charter for the intelligence community, from being
enacted. But Church's main triumph was informational, not legislative. He made
Americans take a hard look at the dark side of government secrecy. "Our society
has drawn its inspiration from the biblical injunction 'Ye shall know the truth
and the truth shall make you free,'" he said. For the CIA, which displays the
same quotation on the wall of its lobby in Langley, Church's reading was probably
a novel one. Many CIA officers likely felt that the general importance of knowing
the truth didn't extend to the agency's crimes and indiscretions, but Church
took a broader view. As he had stated in 1975 before a rare closed session of the
full U.S. Senate, convened to consider his committee's assassination report: "We
must remain a people who confront our mistakes and resolve not to repeat them.
If we do not, we will decline. But if we do, our future will be worthy of the
best of our past."